Friday, April 19, 2013

Where Oh Where?

Where oh where should the new Lianga police station building be located?  This question is at the heart of a a minor storm of controversy that has placed this town's current town officials on edge, in the spotlight and in defensive mode.

But first, it is best to have a brief review of the salient facts.

For decades, the local police station has always been part of the local town hall building complex.  After all, the town hall is the visible and tangible projection of the power and authority of the municipal government and its officials.  The local police force is the hammer that the town government uses to enforce law and order so it would only seem logical that it should be headquartered where the municipal government offices are.

But with the slow and gradual growth of the town and the expanding scope of the responsibilities being assigned to local law enforcers, they began clamoring for bigger and more modern facilities.  The continued existence of a strong and active Communist insurgency in the region also mandated that, for tactical and security reasons, the Lianga police force be preferably housed in a separate location from that of the municipal hall.

The Lianga municipal building has been the target of violent rebel attacks several times within the past three decades, the latest incident occurring one early morning in the summer of 2011 when a force of at least thirty NPA (New People's Army) insurgents tried to storm the makeshift police station beside the town hall building.  The policemen on duty fought off the attackers in a fierce firefight that lasted for over an hour.

In a defensive action lauded by the late amd lamented Jesse Robredo, then secretary of the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG), the small force of less than a dozen cops held their ground and eventually forced the NPA rebels to withdraw without suffering any casualties themselves.  The secretary himself came to Lianga some days later to formally recognize the bravery of the policemen and then accordingly pledged to help with the funding needed to enable local officials relocate the entire police force to a more appropriate and secure site.

From what local officials are saying, it appears that the financial assistance for the new police station was in the form of a grant with a small counterpart from the municipal coffers.  The new building which reportedly would cost several million pesos would be, as the pictures here will show, a three story structure. It was the decision by the local government to site the new building (now currently in the initial stages of construction) on the southeastern corner of the town's reclamation area and just a short distance behind the new Lianga Market Mall that became the spark giving rise to continuing spirited discussion among local residents, many of who see the placement of the new building as ill-advised and not in the best interest of the whole town.

The objections, as I see it, are based on several points.  Firstly, many locals consider the unobstructed view from the town center of Lianga's iconic pur├┤ or lighthouse dominating a strip of flat tidal marshland and fronting the wide blue-green expanse of the Pacific as this town's most enduring scenic attraction for visitors and tourists.  The fact that the new police station building blocks and spoils this lovely vista is, in their view, a  gross misjudgment on the part of the current municipal government.  It would be like, in the words of a young yet vocal critic commenting on a Facebook post lauding the infrastructure initiative, like callously foisting "a Camella-like, low cost housing type of project", "an eyesore" that would ruin one of the most unique and breathtakingly beautiful seascape panoramas in the region.

Secondly, the land reclaimed from the sea behind the market mall has always been envisioned by past town leaders, as previously outlined in various land use and town planning studies done in the past and now gathering dust in musty municipal archives, as the site of a new town park and recreational complex complete with promenade areas.  The idea has always been to take advantage of the magnificent coastal scenery and market Lianga as the place to go to for a stress free and relaxing vacation, where one can quietly commune with nature and the sea.  The new building, many critics are saying, in this context, is simply out of place.

Finally, the same critics decry the idea of placing a building which may end up as the obvious target again of future  NPA attacks right smack in the middle of the town's business district.  They argue it may eventually become a security problem for the area contrary to protestations by town officials that its proposed location will improve and enhance the capacity of the police to respond to threats against peace and order.  It is not where the police headquarters is placed that actually matters in the case of crime fighting and crime prevention, detractors say, but police mobility and visibility that promotes confidence in the capability of the same local security forces to effectively address such critical concerns.

Local government officials I have talked to have essentially admitted that the currently proposed location of the new Lianga police station may not be the most ideal for it and, to be fair about it, have tacitly acknowledged that many of the criticisms  being made by concerned citizens have merit.  Their excuse is that they simply could not find another and more suitable piece of publicly owned land on which to build the new building.  They have pointed out that the DILG and the Philippine National Police headquarters in Camp Crame in Metro Manila did fast-tracked the approval of the project upon the late Sec, Robredo's request and that the incumbent town fathers had little time and no money available to look for and secure another more suitable site. 

On senior official I candidly chatted with on this specific issue had explained to me that when the funding for the project was released, it had come to the bitter choice of locating the new police station within the reclamation area or rejecting it outright because the municipal government could not provide an alternate space for it on publicly owned property that was immediately available   He then asked critics who have misgivings about the placement of the new public building to be patient because the local government will adopt whatever measures it can in the future to help mitigate whatever aesthetic and security concerns they may have regarding its proposed location at present.

Here's my opinion on this issue.

I have to agree with much of the objections being made with regards to the location of the new building.  It does seem that the government of Mayor Roy Sarmen and the municipal council led by Vice Mayor Jun Lala had made a decision in this cast that was both too hasty and ill-considered.

I also do not have much sympathy for the position being taken by the current town officials that they did not simply had the time or the needed financial resources to look for a more suitable location for the new police station.  It is clear that they had at least a year or so to do exactly that after Sec. Robredo had initially offered to provide funding for the project in 2011.

Reliable sources at the municipal hall have also hinted to me that local officials could have been able to propose other more appropriate sites in other areas within the town proper which are in actuality publicly owned land but could not do so because they could not submit to the DILG and Camp Crame the necessary papers and documents proving public ownership of these properties.  It seems that past political administrations had not finalized the processing of the ownership papers of these public lots after these had been acquired by either actual purchase or by donation by private persons and that the present political leadership had lazily, and with evident lack of foresight, had not bothered to follow up on the needed documentation.

Urban and town planning together with land use and development studies are essential programs undertaken by local governments that by their very nature require them to visualize how they intend to direct the growth and development of their communities not only in the near and immediate future but for decades and even generations to come.  It involves careful study and analysis of the present and future needs of a growing population and how best to utilize available land resources to their maximum advantage for the future.

In this aspect of governance, specifically with regards to the controversy regarding the new police station building, the current officials at the municipal hall have failed miserably.  They have deluded themselves into thinking that any form of infrastructure development especially a critically important one offered on such generous terms by the national government can be implemented haphazardly, with undue haste and with little or no respect for the sensitivities of a large portion of its own constituents and then hope to get away with the glaring lapse of good judgement by loudly and deceitfully claiming that they neither had the time or the resources to have done the job properly in the first place.

They can, of course, now claim that the new Lianga police station building's construction on the site they have so imprudently chosen for it will have to continue because it is now a done deal and that to stop it now may lead to the possibility of losing the funding needed for the project to be implemented.

That may indeed be the case but I must say this. Lianga's present crop of town leaders can push on with this project unmindful of what seems to me valid and justified criticism coming from many well meaning citizens here and ram their choice of the new building's location down the throat of their constituents but they cannot deny the fact that such unseemly heavy-handedness and insensitivity may end up leaving many residents here with a nauseatingly bitter and ugly taste in their mouths.


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