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LEAGUE OF MUNICIPALITIES OF THE PHILIPPINES NATIONAL PRESIDENT JOSEPH STO. NIÑO “JB” BERNOS


Being of Service to More Filipinos

By: Ragie Mae Taño-Arellano


Mayor JB Bernos of La Paz, Abra, dreams of a better future not only for Abra but the whole country.


LA PAZ, ABRA MAYOR JOSEPH STO. NIÑO "JB" BERNOS’ ACHIEVEMENTS AS LOCAL CHIEF EXECUTIVE AND NATIONAL LAWMAKER HAVE PAVED THE WAY FOR HIM TO IMPROVE THE LIVES OF HIS PROVINCEMATES, AS WELL AS TO BE OF SERVICE TO MORE FILIPINOS AS NATIONAL PRESIDENT OF THE LEAGUE OF MUNICIPALITIES OF THE PHILIPPINES.


Bernos’ involvement in public service has also inspired the next generation to follow in their ascendants’ steps. Their second daughter, for instance, won as barangay chairperson in the town of Bucay in the recent barangay elections.


BERNOS DOES NOT CONSIDER BEING A MEMBER OF A POLITICAL CLAN TO BE AN ISSUE, AS LONG AS THEIR INTENTION IS TO SERVE THE PUBLIC WELL.


“We never encouraged her to run in the town of La Paz because we did not want to spoonfeed her. I told her that if she wants to join politics, she should do it the hard way.” He clarifies that he and his wife never interfere with how their daughter runs the barangay’s affairs, but notes that is performing well as a young community leader.


HIS FATHER’S SON

Bernos looks up to his father, who was the one who inspired and influenced him to enter politics. “I want to be like my dad. I want to be better than him,” he says. Witnessing the needs of his provincemates all the more fueled his desire to be a public servant. “Namulat ako na pagkagising mo, nakikita mo sa bahay na problema na ng mga tao ang kaharap mo,

eh. Parang takbuhan. Yung dad ko kasi ganun sya eh. (I got used to waking up to my father attending to the concerns of his constituents. He was someone they ran to when they had problems. My dad was like that).”

With his exposure to public service at an early age, Bernos decided to start as a public servant when he was 16 years old, as part of their barangay’s Sangguniang Kabataan (SK). After this, there was no turning back, as he vied for and was elected to higher positions. “I always wanted to go a step higher, for I want to do more for the people,” he says. The biggest motivation for him to be of continuous service to the people, he shares, is witnessing how they plead for help. “Lumalambot ako pag problema ng tao ang pag-uusapan. (My heart melts when I learn of people’s problems).”


MORNING AND NIGHT HUSTLE

Bernos wakes up as early as five o’clock in the morning, saying that his father instilled in him and his siblings the habit of starting work early when they were young. With this, he has enough time to visit the town’s barangays, a habit he has had since he started his life in public service. “I feel like I don’t do that much in the office. It’s like my day is incomplete when I stay in the office. I prefer going out rather than being the one being visited,” he shares. He doesn’t want to be confined in the office; going to the grassroots gives him a firmer grasp of the bigger picture of his constituents’ needs. He even frequently holds meetings outside his office or in a nearby location, particularly in the capital town of Abra, which is Bangued, where government offices and commercial centers are located. This way, if there is a need to have a meeting with other officials or ask for government support and services, everything is accessible.



INDEED, BEING LMP PRESIDENT HAS GIVEN BERNOS THE CHANCE TO BE OF BETTER SERVICE TO MORE PEOPLE.


Bernos, who also served as mayor from 2007 to 2016, discloses that he works until about one o’clock in the morning, taking calls and responding to text messages regarding issues, challenges, and concerns raised by his constituents. “People would call me even at midnight. It’s embarrassing if I don’t answer. Even when we are on vacation, work still continues over the phone,” he reveals. He notes that he wants to be the first to know about everything that is happening in his municipality and throughout the province of Abra, so his staff and constituents are aware that he can be reached even at odd hours.


BRIDGING THROUGH INFRASTRUCTURE DEVELOPMENT

Abra is part of the Cordillera Administrative Region, which is regarded as one of the few remaining strongholds of communist insurgents in the country. Bernos understands why many residents in the hinterlands of Abra joined the New People’s Army (NPA), the armed group of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), through the years. During the height of the insurgency, many of them joined the NPA due to frustration that the services of the national government did not reach them. Looking back, he relates that this was one of the reasons that pushed him to become a public servant. He, however, claims that Abra’s peace and order situation has stabilized. “You can walk any time of the day, any time of the night. I can guarantee your safety once you set foot in Abra,” he assures.


Bernos believes that infrastructure improvement is essential throughout Abra. He knows that Abra has been overlooked in terms of infrastructure development, which is critical for the province’s economic development. He notes that national authorities only focus on national roads, which are few in number, as well as flood control systems and farm-to-market roads. “So we had to be aggressive with regards to the infrastructure that is lacking in the province. So since I assumed office in Congress and up until now in the term of my wife, we really focus on infrastructure,” he stresses.


Two-thirds of Abra’s 25 municipalities are located in upland areas. They are mostly populated by indigenous people (IPs) called Tinguian or Itneg. Meanwhile, around 60 percent of the people in the lowlands are Ilocano-speaking. Bernos is half Ilocano and half-Itneg, with his father being a full-blooded Ilocano and his mother, a full-blooded Itneg. According to him, most of the politicians before were Ilocanos; that’s why most of the infrastructure projects are focused only on the lowlands. “If there are no roads, how can the services of the national government reach the hinterlands?,” he asks. He says that it would even take three to four days to reach one barangay from another in some municipalities in Abra.


The mayor reveals that there were even towns in Abra where the mayor’s residence served as de facto municipal hall because there was none. “This kind of infrastructure was among my priority projects when I became congressman of Abra. I made appeals to some national government agencies, and I am glad there were many who believed and placed their trust and confidence in me,” he shares. He proudly declares that since 2017, there has already been an influx of infrastructure projects in their province. Most of these projects are from the Department of Agriculture (DA), the National Irrigation Administration (NIA), and the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH).


At present, Bernos and Congresswoman Ching are focused on improving food production and the livestock industry in the province. He argues that Abra, as an agricultural province, may thrive in the production of rice, pigs, poultry, beef, and eggs, particularly because these commodities are being imported from outside Abra due to a lack of a viable animal industry. However, the mayor stresses that the situation will greatly improve once the necessary infrastructure to support various enterprises are in place. According to him, more than 20 bridges are currently under construction, with many of them set to open in the next few years. These bridges will connect faraway sitios and barangays to the town centers. They recently opened a public market in his hometown of La Paz, which the mayor deems the biggest in Abra. They will also launch Northern Luzon’s largest and most advanced Triple A slaughterhouse. “This is all in preparation for what we plan to do in the province. If local officials do not support farmers, they will suffer,” he stresses.


Bernos does not hide his optimism as he describes his vision of a better province anchored on building the necessary infrastructure. He claims that data from the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) shows that thousands of construction workers have been employed in Abra in the past seven years, with the many infrastructure projects. “It’s nice to hear stories about construction workers with children who have graduated from college and others who have already become teachers or engineers. I hope the national government will continue to assist us in our infrastructure and other projects,” he says.


SERVING MORE PEOPLE THROUGH LMP


Bernos’ success as local chief executive has not gone unnoticed, even outside Abra. In September 2022, he was elected as the League of Municipalities of the Philippines (LMP) National President for 2022-2025. The LMP is a national organization that brings together all municipalities in the Philippines, through their mayors. It was created by virtue of Republic Act 7160, or the Local Government Code of 1991. The organization’s mandate revolves around the “primary purpose of ventilating, articulating and crystallizing issues affecting municipal government administration, and securing, through proper and legal means, solutions thereto.”


The mayor is no stranger to LMP, having previously served as the organization’s vice president for external affairs. With this, Bernos is expected to be able to live up to the tasks at hand, which includes assisting the national government in formulating and implementing policies, programs and projects affecting municipalities in general; promoting local autonomy at the municipal level; and encouraging people’s participation in local government administration in order to attain national development goals.


Bernos' network extends to the international level. He was recently elected as a council member of the United Cities and Local Governments Asia Pacific (UCLG ASPAC) for the term 2023–2025, giving him the chance to shape policies and programs for local communities in the region. UCLG ASPAC is an international organization that represents the interests of local governments in Asia. His election to the council demonstrates his great leadership and commitment to developing international collaboration.


Bernos says that aside from giving him the chance to share his knowledge of local governance with his counterparts, LMP has had a significant influence on the direction of his own political career. Although managing the problems of 1,486 municipal mayors nationwide is no joke, he sees such as a chance to advance both personally and professionally. “Serving in the LMP fully maximizes my potential as a mayor,” he says.

Being in the LMP opened Bernos’ eyes to realities in other municipalities as well as to more opportunities to help his constituents. This, according to him, gave him the chance to include Abra in the political and economic landscape of the Philippines. His views on improving Abra were broadened in 2010, when he was elected LMP chapter president for Abra during his second term as mayor. This experience convinced him that he needed to run for Congress. It was then that he realized how limited the help he could provide to the people if he stayed in Abra was. “When I joined LMP, my network widened. I became friends with other mayors and learned from veterans in the field of politics.” He rose from chapter president to vice president, leading to his election as national president.


Bernos feels that LMP helped him see that there are better prospects for him to bring more projects to Abra. “From the start, I had the chance to rub elbows with national officials and Cabinet secretaries who encouraged me to seek a higher position,” he recalls. From that moment on, he understood that serving as the Congressional representative for the Lone District of Abra in the House of Representatives would guarantee that their province would get the services of the national agencies.


Alongside the prestige that comes with his role, Bernos notes that being LMP president is a difficult duty because, in addition to dealing with mayors’ concerns as public officials, he is also expected to help solve personal issues. Indeed, being LMP president has given him the chance to be of better service to more people.


MAKING TIME FOR FAMILY AND LOOKING FORWARD

Despite his and his wife’s tight schedules, Bernos makes sure to find time for his family. Although he has been assigned additional duties as LMP president, he hopes that this will allow him to spend more time with his wife and children who attend Metro Manila schools, as his new role requires him to be away from his hometown at times. He is convinced, however, that even if he is not in La Paz, he has a trustworthy municipal administrator who will continue to look after their town’s needs.


Despite the many opportunities that await him in the field of public service, the 45-year-old Bernos admits to LEAGUE that he has considered retiring at the age of 55. “I also want to enjoy life. It has been my dream to become an ordinary citizen because I entered politics at the age of 16,” he shares. He recalls his father’s words that when one enters politics, he automatically becomes public property. “I want to have a life kung saan walang nakikialam sa akin (where no one interferes). I have lots of friends who enjoy that kind of life, and I want that kind of life too while I am still able to enjoy it,” the mayor admits.


Bernos believes that it is time to give the younger generation a chance to serve since the country needs new and innovative ideas. Although he agrees that more work needs to be done, he can boldly state that he has done so much for the people of Abra. Although he has been dreaming of a better Abra and continues to pursue that dream, there are times when he becomes drained, particularly when he considers how he has not fully lived up to his duties as a father to his children. “I wish I could spend more time with them before they start their own families. That is why I want to retire early,” he shares.


Although the mayor recognizes that no one actually retires from politics, he is committed to refraining from running for public office at the age of 55 and instead become an adviser. This way, he could still be of service to his province mates even as he spends most of his time with his family.


Bernos feels that even if he stays away from electoral politics, he will know that he has never failed and has even made his late father proud of his accomplishments. He turns emotional as he tells LEAGUE that his proclamation during his second term as congressman was the most memorable moment in his political career because he was able to share his landslide victory with his father. “Lalong nabuhay ang dugo ko para magsilbi dahil doon (My will to serve was further ignited because of that),” he ends.


PARTNERS IN LIFE, PARTNERS IN PUBLIC SERVICE


When NP JB Bernos, then-Mayor of La Paz, Abra, won the four-way congressional election in 2016, he pledged himself to work for the development of the province of Abra. But he did more than just improve it. Suffice it to say, he changed the province of Abra.


During his tenure in the 17th and 18th Congresses of the House of Representatives, Cong. JB, as he became known, set out to bring progress to Abra. In the august halls of Congress, he spearheaded funding for the construction of roads and bridges that connected communities and enabled access from farms to markets. He also saw the need to build classrooms and gymnasiums in schools so that young Abreños would have a conducive space to develop their potential. In addition, with the strong Abra River running through the heart of the province, flood control structures were created across barangays to protect houses from raging waters during heavy downpours.


As a Congressman with the primary duty to legislate, he filed numerous bills benefiting various sectors of society. With education as his utmost priority, he led the campaign to convert the Abra State Institute of Sciences and Technology, the province’s lone state college, into a state university known as the University of Abra. This culminated in the enactment of Republic Act No. 11574, which formalized this desire to have a state university in Abra.


When NP JB Bernos returned to the mayoralty of La Paz, Abra, his wife, then-Mayor Ching Bernos, succeeded him in the House of Representatives. Apart from continuing the infrastructure development initiatives that continue to benefit Abreños and visitors to the province, she also placed great emphasis on the social development of Abra. Cong. Ching expanded the delivery of social service projects such as the Educational Assistance Program, which has benefitted more than 10,000 scholars; the Medical Assistance Program, which helps indigent families with hospitalization expenses; the TUPAD Program, which provides short-term jobs to many Abreños; and the TESDA scholarship programs, which equip individuals with skills for employment.



Like NP JB, Cong. Ching also prioritized education, as she filed bills seeking to create a science high school and a Polytechnic University of the Philippines site in Abra. She also filed a measure to develop and support the handloom weaving industry in the Philippines, which Abra promotes through the loomweaving communities that produce the famous abel fabric.


The partnership of NP JB and Congresswoman Ching in public service shows that people can always count on good governance, benevolent continuity, and proactive leadership to get things done. With all of their efforts, they helped usher in an era of peace and prosperity in Abra. Indeed, Abra is fortunate to have them both as leaders, as they changed the province of Abra and the municipality of La Paz for the better. In their future endeavors, it can be boldly said that they will continue to bring PROGRESO, their brand of public service, to all Abreños and to all Filipinos.







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