Thursday, September 19, 2013

Minding The Legacy

When Surigao del Sur Governor Johnny Pimentel appointed and swore into office Marie Gene Lala as the newest member of Lianga's municipal council last September 9, he may have been largely motivated by the need to pay tribute to her recently deceased husband, Robert "Jun" Lala Jr, who was the town's vice-mayor when he passed away last August 17. But the governor may have wittingly done the people of Lianga a great service.

When Jun Lala died in office after just over a month of serving his second full term as head of Lianga's Sangguniang Bayan or municipal council, Dot Tejero who was the highest ranking council member automatically succeeded him to that office thus opening up a vacancy in the eight man legislative body. The law empowers the provincial governor to appoint a person to fill up the vacant position for the remaining portion of the unexpired term which ends in 2016.

In the past, the choice of who to appoint has always been subject to the pressures and requirements of political expediency and provincial governors have always used the rather discretionary nature of this particular appointing authority as an integral part of the much entrenched system of patronage politics that is a bitter and undesirable reality of the dysfunctional political system of this country.  I have written a previous blog post some time ago about this which can be seen here.

In the case of Jun Lala who was much revered and respected by many here in Lianga, it appears that Gov. Pimentel, who is a party mate of the late vice-mayor in the ruling Liberal Party, may have felt less inclined to hand over such a juicy position (said to be worth, at the very least, almost P50,000 in monthly salaries and benefits for almost a full term of three years) to just any of his political henchmen and cronies here in Lianga without arousing the passionate ire of the late vice-mayor's considerable number of relatives and supporters who cannot be faulted for insisting that the vacancy be filled in by someone worthy of minding and continuing Jun Lala's political legacy.

To be charitable and fair about it, it can also be said that the governor did have much respect and felt perhaps no small degree of personal affection for the late vice-mayor and was therefore more than amendable to elevating someone to the municipal council who was not only acceptable to Jun Lala's family and supporters but also one who is clearly identified with his style and philosophy of public service

Now, I know Gene Lala personally and while she is certainly still quite young and a virtual unknown in Lianga politics, what many here don't know is that she comes, like her late husband who comes a well known political clan in Lianga, from a family and clan very prominent in local politics in the town of Sapang Dalaga in Misamis Oriental and thus is keenly attuned to the realities and nuances of being constantly in the political limelight.  She is highly educated, extremely approachable, well-mannered and firmly shares many of Jun Lala's core values and principles.

I have always, as a matter of principle, spoken out against the practice of appointing, in the aftermath of the death of a serving elected official, any of his family members to vacant government positions. Such a practice in my view, is violative of the principles underlying democratic and republican governments. Public office, as I see it, is always a public trust and therefore cannot be inherited or claimed as a matter of right by virtue of blood or familial relations.

Yet in the case of Gene Lala, I may have to make an exception. Knowing the rather shadowy characters and dubious quality of the other persons and individuals here in Lianga (and most people here know who they are) who have been identified to have actively lobbied with Gov. Pimentel for the empty seat in the council, Gene is beyond doubt one of the better and wiser choices he could have made. The fact that she happens to be the wife of the late Jun Lala may actually work to her advantage because she can bank, if she needs to, on the residual popularity of her fallen husband and massive outpouring of sympathy for her and her family in the aftermath of his death.

There are parallels, of course, being drawn here in Lianga between Gene Lala and Leni Robredo, the wife of the late Jesse Robredo, the extremely popular, former secretary of the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG), who was catapulted to a seat in the lower house of Congress (representing her district in Camarines Sur) in the wake of her husband's tragic death in a plane crash last year. I find such comparisons cute but trite.

What is however true in the case of both women, who have been forced by unfortunate circumstances to become neophyte politicians by popular clamor, is that they have to perform their duties and responsibilities as first time legislators under the highest of expectations and the greatest of pressures to do well.  It would not be easy for both of them to now live under constant public scrutiny and being now always held up to the high standards set by their husbands' sterling political track records.

For Gene Lala, of course, it is important for her to realize that she can never be the consummate politician that her husband was. She will have to become her own man and chart her own course as a public servant in the almost three years she will have to serve while at the same time build upon the legacy of service her late husband has left behind. It is a formidable and daunting task and one that I would not have wished on anyone so unassuming and so self-effacing.

But the kind of burdens that fate often places so whimsically on the shoulders of ordinary men or women, all of us included, at critical times can be intimidatingly difficult to bear much less easy to comprehend as to their reason or cause. What really matters in the end is how well we carry all the many different crosses we all must bear as we individually trudge our own courses through life.

In Gene's case, however, she is both paradoxically blessed and cursed. On one hand there is the honor and prestige as well as the perks and benefits of public office. Yet she must also face up to the crushing responsibility of living up to the extraordinary legacy of public service her husband had left behind. What Jun Lala had wanted to accomplish for Lianga is now essentially her personal responsibility to eventually give tangible substance and concrete reality to.

The people of Lianga can only hope and pray that she will be, in the months and years ahead, be proven more than equal to the enormous task set before her.


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