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The Queen City


Naga City Mayor John Bongat, with his gamechanging leadership, braced by a solid foundation of good governance, is expected to continue leading his beloved city to greater heights



Naga City’s solid track record speaks for itself. The “Queen City of Bicol” has consistently figured at the top rankings of the National Competitiveness Council (NCC). Naga was adjudged as the overall No. 1 most competitive component city in 2015 and 2016. When the competitiveness rankings first started in 2013, component and highly-urbanized cities were not differentiated and yet Naga ranked ninth. It jumped six places to capture the third place in 2014, before clinching the top spot for component cities in 2015 and 2016. In 2017, Naga ranked first in government efficiency, third in economic dynamism, and third in infrastructure.

The term “inclusive leadership” naturally comes up when Mayor John Bongat starts talking about keys to good governance. “That may sound like a technical term. But it just means that the city government by itself cannot hope to bring about the changes that we need in Naga. We have to engage and mobilize other government agencies, the private sector, non-government partners, even individual citizens. My role as a leader is to help craft a vision and goals that we all believe in; enable sectors and people to contribute to those goals; and make sure that we are all going in the right direction,” says Mayor Bongat.

He explains that while improving government efficiency is well within the control of City Hall, they also have to take into account the processes of national government agencies in Naga.

Applying for permits, for instance, entails dealing with the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), the Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR), and the Bureau of Fire Protection (BFP), among others. Hence, to ensure that they are on top of the rankings, they have to discuss and agree on processes that they have to put in place to enhance efficiency.

Mayor Bongat explains further, “Infrastructure does not count only the facilities put in place by both local and national government. It also looks into private infrastructure such as telecommunications facilities, accommodations for businessmen and tourists, and educational and health facilities. For us to put the necessary infrastructure in place, we have to be able to get their inputs, discuss with them, and convince them about priority development concerns.

“Economic dynamism largely measures the investments made by, and productivity of, the local business community. The role here of a local government is to put in place an environment where business can thrive. Again, that requires engagement and inclusive decision-making. The private sector has to feel that it is listened to and that is it part of the growth of Naga.

“Disaster resiliency is not only about rescue and relief. Engagement with all sectors is necessary as it deals with the ability of an entire community to weather natural and man-made calamities and resume life immediately after.”

The term “SMILES” is more than just a word describing Nagueños’ outgoing nature. It’s in fact an acronym that symbolizes Naga’s goals of strengthening its position as a fast-growing progressive city in Bicol and in Southern Luzon.

Mayor Bongat shares that he and his core team thought of the term in 2010, before he was sworn in as mayor. While they had a pretty good grasp of their initial priorities—health, housing especially for the urban poor, education, livelihood, investments, tourism development, public safety, the environment, and good governance—they felt that they had to “market” their vision in a way that constituents and stakeholders can easily understand.

He challenged his team to think of action words to convey the dynamism in his administration’s plan. At first, they came up with the words “study,” “invest,” and “live.” Naga, being a top tourist destination and venue for hosting national events and conventions, they naturally decided to use “see” and “meet.” To highlight Naga’s distinction as a model for good governance, Mayor Bongat suggested the word “experience.” “As chance would have it, when we looked at the first letters of these verbs, they spelled out S-M-I-L-E-S. See Naga, Meet in Naga, Live in Naga, Experience Naga, and Study in Naga. To market our vision, we came up with the phrase ‘Naga SMILES to the World,’” he quips.

The city’s chief executive says he is most proud of the fact that over the course of his tenure, they have seen significant and permanent improvements in basic aspects of living in the city such as health, housing, education, the economy, and peace and order. “The city’s physical landscape has changed for the better over the past seven years, perhaps the fastest such change in several decades. We are now among the country’s billionaire cities with local government revenues exceeding the billion mark in 2017. And that is not due to IRA, but to local revenues from a booming economy,” Mayor Bongat points out.

We are now among the country’s billionaire cities with local government revenues exceeding the billion mark in 2017. And that is not due to IRA, but to local revenues from a booming economy

But more than the statistics and figures, he considers the conceptualization and institutionalization of new programs and projects that address the citizens’ concerns and the inclusion and active participation of different sectors and stakeholders as some of his biggest achievements.

As for the awards and recognitions, the good mayor says the city government doesn’t really have a policy for actively applying for awards and recognitions. He admits, though, that he sometimes tend to micro-manage at City Hall when he sees that things are not being done or are not being done right. “I have made it a point to empower our individual departments and offices to enable them to attain our respective goals and objectives. We found out that by listening to their concerns and the concerns of the constituents they serve, agreeing on strategies, then giving our people enough ‘elbow room’ to craft and implement their own implementation plans rather than imposing my will, we are able to drive performance. In many cases, our city offices have been able to exceed their targets. This has resulted in awardgiving bodies taking notice of their performance, leading to recognitions for the city government.

“I have always emphasized that the best way to receive recognition would be to not seek them from any awardgiving body but to simply deliver on our promises, ensure that goals are met or exceeded, and to properly inform our stakeholders of what is being done,” he says.

Thus, in 2010, they started with seven priority areas: H-ealth and Nutrition; H-ousing and Human Settlements; E-ducation, Arts and Culture, and Sports Development; L-ivelihood, Business and Employment; P-eace and Order and Public Safety; C-leanliness and Environmental Protection; and T-ransparency and Good Governance. For these, they coined the tagline H2 ELP your CiTy which is also a call for people to get engaged in governing the city. Nagueños can attest to the strides that the current administration has made in addressing the city’s priority concerns.

Like any city, Naga was also faced with obstacles. One of the most challenging involved instituting fiscal reforms in the city government to lessen their reliance on their IRA share from the central government.

When he became mayor in 2010, he sought to review the city’s finances and utilization of resources. This allowed him to be more discriminating in budget spending and encouraged him to explore the possibility of strengthening the city’s economic enterprises such as the public market, which they reorganized and rebranded as the Naga City People’s Mall. Around 2,000 stalls at the public market serve not only shoppers from Naga but from nearby towns as well.

From barely earning enough to fund its operations, the People’s Mall is now the largest contributor to locally-generated revenues of the city government. This has given the city additional funding for its programs. The same holds true for its other economic enterprises: the Naga City Abattoir and the Naga City Hospital.

The other significant challenge that his administration faced involved the exercise of their political will to reclaim management rights over Naga’s Central Bus Terminal. When Mayor Bongat assumed office, the bus terminal, which is owned by the city government, was being managed by a private entity under a management agreement. Over time, however, remittances to the city government remained abnormally low despite the obvious income the terminal was earning. When the management contract expired, they decided not to renew it and regain control of the bus terminal. This was vehemently refused by the private management company, locking down the terminal and denying their personnel access to the facility.

Knowing very well that the law was on their side and that the general public would consequently benefit from their actions, they decided to exercise the city government’s will. Less than two years after that incident (and after several court and Ombudsman cases), and after being rebranded into the Bicol Central Station, it now trails the People’s Mall as the second-largest contributor of local revenues to the city government. After years of neglect, facilities at the central station have also been repaired, collection efficiency has significantly improved, and traveler and passenger services have been upgraded.

On his last term as the mayor of Naga, Mayor Bongat would like to focus on consolidating the gains made and institutionalizing policies and programs to ensure their continuity. “There are also other matters that deserve our attention. On top of these are efforts to provide a more holistic intervention to improve the lives of those in our poorest communities which we call Least Economically-Resilient Communities (LERCs); disaster resilience; and opening up new investment opportunities in Naga especially in the areas of IT/ business process management and manufacturing of high-value products for export, which are in addition to the city’s traditional role as the trade and finance center of the Bicol region.”

“I would like to leave behind a city which can take on new economic opportunities and is on its way to becoming one of the country’s economic powerhouses; is better-prepared for and can weather calamities; and where the poorest of the poor have a better quality of life,” he concludes.

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