BY CAMILLE F. CABAL
Photography by Daniel Soriano
BEHIND THE HUMBLE AND QUIET CITY OF SAN FERNANDO, LA UNION, MANONG DONG’S ACCOMPLISHMENTS SPEAK THE LOUDEST.
“Manong” (big brother) is what the kakabsat (brothers and sisters) of San Fernando, La Union call Mayor Hermenegildo “Dong” A. Gualberto. When asked why he prefers to be addressed as such, Gualberto shares that he wants to be the big brother who will do anything he could for the people and he is always willing to help those in need. At first glance, you wouldn’t even think Gualberto is the mayor because of his light aura and grounded interaction with the people. Following is the story of how the meek yet effective leader got to where he is now.
THE ROAD TO PUBLIC SERVICE
Like many public servants with interesting success stories, Gualberto—whose father was a lawyer and his mother, a public school educator—never dreamt of being involved in politics. However, a life-changing event involving his brother changed his attitude toward politics.
“I never imagined entering the world of politics. Medyo magulo eh (it’s quite chaotic). And then my brother, Allen, who was elected councilor in 1988, died. He died at the age of 27, two years into his term,” Gualberto, who is known for leading a simple life, reveals. He likens his brother to a saint, describing him as the epitome of an ideal public servant. According to him, the people truly appreciated his brother’s brand of service which was to be respectful, empathetic, and someone who listens and assures.
Allen’s death—and thus, inability to finish his term— made Gualberto feel indebted to the kakabsat. Gualberto candidly admits that the then-happy-go-lucky guy in him was initially reluctant to run, but he was prevailed upon by the people. Running for councilor in 1992 was largely his way of expressing gratitude to the people who trusted his brother. Gualberto decided to run for only one term to bring his late brother’s plans to fruition.
“Two years nila akong inawitan (they tried to persuade me for two years). I told them ‘[politics] is not my cup of tea.’ Then eventually I said, ‘Let’s give it a try.’ I’ll try for one term, after which, nakabayad na rin siguro ‘yung kuya ko ng utang niya (my brother would have already paid for his unfulfilled obligations),” Gualberto shares.
Alas, Gualberto found himself serving for three terms as a councilor and eventually deciding to serve for another nine years in a bigger capacity, this time as a La Union provincial board member. Eventually, he became the vice mayor of the City of San Fernando in 2013 after emerging triumphant in his first one- on-one political contest. Running as an independent candidate against a long-established politician, Gualberto won by a very slim margin of 100 votes. The religious mayor believes that this was a special message from above.
“Memorable siya hindi lang dahil nanalo kami pero dahil doon sa margin, 100 [votes] kasi (It’s memorable not just because we won but also because of the winning margin, which was 100 [votes]). It signifies a perfect score. It was as if God had sent me a message, ‘Okay I’m giving you this chance so let me see your 100 percent in serving my people. I want you to be a perfect instrument in the field of public service,’” Gualberto says.
Three years later, Gualberto finally decided to run as mayor, again as an independent candidate. And once again, he won against another member of the political family from which his 2013 opponent came.
OVERCOMING THE DIFFICULTIES
Gualberto’s name has been in the news both for positive and negative reasons. On April 29, 2019, the Office of the Ombudsman (OMB) issued a 90-day preventive suspension order following allegations from 47 barangay chairpersons that he had connived with a contractor and allowed the disbursement of funds for the rehabilitation of the city plaza without authority of the city council. The dismissal was effective two weeks before the election, prompting many kakabsat to think that such was politically motivated.
The mayor shares that while waiting for the truth to prevail, he looked at the positive side and enjoyed time with his family instead. He believes that what happened served as an eye-opener for him to appreciate the importance of family. “I think that was God’s way of opening my eyes, [as if to tell me] ‘I think you have neglected your family, naka-focus ka lang yata sa work mo (you seem to be spending all your time on your work).’”
Gualberto admits that through the years, there were major family events that he missed because of his duties as a public servant. When his children were born, Gualberto was either trapped in a flood, busy campaigning, or attending an event as a speaker. However, his family, particularly his wife Connie, has always been supportive of him. Despite his suspension, Gualberto still emerged victorious in the May 2019 local elections. In January 2020, however, the OMB issued a dismissal order against him.
Left without an official function during the first eight months of the pandemic, Gualberto spent his time learning about COVID-19 and how to deal with it as a local leader. He devoured online and print reading materials, attended webinars, and watched videos to have a better understanding of the novel disease. “Ang isang realization ko, para maging effective na leader ay dapat mag-aral ka, mag-aral at mag- aral (One of my realizations is, to be a good leader, you should never stop learning),” Gualberto says. He shares that although he was technically a private citizen then, he still actively helped his constituents through donation drives.
On November 4, 2020, Gualberto was reinstated as mayor after the Court of Appeals (CA) reversed the decision of the Ombudsman. The learnings he gained about COVID-19 from his personal efforts came in handy as he took on a bigger role in dealing with the pandemic. Until the end, Gualberto looked at the silver lining behind his dismissal. Looking back at what happened, he believes that the experience made him a stronger and more resilient leader. It taught him to be more careful with what he is doing as a local chief executive.
“It’s memorable not just because we won but also because of the winning margin, which was 100 [votes]. It signifies a perfect score. It was as if God had sent me a message, ‘Okay I’m giving you this chance so let me see your 100 percent in serving my people. I want you to be a perfect instrument in the field of public service. “
While city executives are expected to fulfill myriad tasks, the social services they provide will always be the people’s basis of appreciation. Of all his initiatives, Gualberto is very fond of the city’s Task Force UMISU or Umay Mangted Iti Sungbat (Here to Provide Solutions) which extends help to those in the marginalized sectors. Incidentally, umisu is an Iloko term which means “appropriate.”
Task Force UMISU is one initiative of Gualberto which brings the appropriate social services being provided by the mayor’s office to the doorsteps of his constituents. He launched this initiative after he found out that there are people who are unaware of the services that the city government of San Fernando is ready to provide for them. Meanwhile, some are shy or intimidated to ask the office for help, or are too far to access the mayor’s office. Residents who live nearby may not have the financial capability to pay for their fare to the city hall while some may be physically challenged to get there.
The primary services that the office provides under the project are medical services which include free checkups, free dental kits, and seeds for planting. This is done in every barangay with the help of the barangay health workers (BHWs). Gualberto adds that the expanded UMISU now includes the Bahay Buhay Project, through which they give houses to city residents who deserve these the most. Asked how they determine the recipients, Gualberto says that City Social Welfare and Development Office (CSWDO) personnel accompany city officials when visiting potential beneficiaries.
They visit each beneficiary and assess if the residents are truly incapable of fixing their own house. Gualberto says that they do this to give their people a decent home and to give them hope that they can achieve their dreams one day. Also under Task Force UMISU is the reading program led by Gualberto’s wife Connie. The program started in 2013 when he was still the vice mayor.
Every summer, they would go to communities to help the students learn or improve their ability to read. Right now, plans are afoot to enhance the project by doing it year-round. Gualberto has not forgotten to pay attention to environmental projects, too. To encourage their residents to keep their surroundings clean, the mayor came up with the Palit-Basura Program where they give out grocery items in exchange for old tires and bulbs. According to him, this will reduce the breeding ground of dengue-carrying mosquitoes and will improve waste management in the city.
REVITALIZING THE ECONOMY
In an effort to quickly but safely usher the city into the new normal, Gualberto emphasized the importance of inoculating the populace with the proper vaccines. During his State of the City Address (SOCA) last year, he reported that the city achieved herd immunity even before 2021 ended. He proudly shares that as of the interview, 50 percent of their population has already received their first booster shot and that the city is expected to achieve a 100 percent vaccination rate by the last quarter.
Regarding his other plans for the city, Gualberto is very particular with prioritizing health, education, and the economy, the areas gravely affected by the pandemic. He mentions clear plans to improve the healthcare system by investing more in health programs and medicines and hiring more health personnel to improve the health service the city is providing to the kakabsat of San Fernando.
The mayor also wants to work on job generation to help the employees who were displaced during the pandemic get back on their feet. He says that unemployment in the city increased after COVID-19 hit, a situation made more serious by the inability of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) to return to their work abroad. Gualberto also plans to help micro, small, and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs) recover. He hopes that investors will flock to the city as a result of ongoing efforts to improve the business climate.
If there’s one thing distinct about the story of Gualberto, it’s the trust and support of the kakabsat for his leadership. And for this, he is so grateful. “I’d like to thank the people of San Fernando for giving me another term, giving me another three years to serve them. I’d like to assure them that as long as I’m here, I will do everything to serve them, to give the best service to them. We will continue to build the San Fernando that we all dream of, a ‘People’s City’ that will leave no one behind,” Gualberto ends.