WORM’S EYEVIEW: Why discourage assembly or curtail autonomy?

CAGAYAN DE ORO CITY (MindaNews/23 March) — There will be “synchronized” Barangay Assembly meetings nationwide on Saturday, March 29.

It’s unclear how synchronized assemblies promote autonomy or local governance, but it is routine practice now although it has no palpable effect on governing efficiency or proficiency.

In any case, consider these thoughts as you prepare for this week’s assembly.

If you limit the way people exercise discretion, a right, or an entitlement, you dampen creativity
or initiative, encourage laziness or dependency, and discourage autonomy or resourcefulness.

This is what the President unwittingly did when he issued Proclamation No. 260 in September 2011. Through it he decreed that barangays assemble only twice yearly — once on the last Saturday of March and again on the second Sunday of October.

The proclamation attracted little or no attention; not even from Congress. No pork or perks or DAP, I guess. But it was a radical move. It ran counter to Sec. 397 of Republic Act 7160 (the Local Government Code) which states: “The Barangay Assembly shall meet at least twice a year….” which certainly means it may meet more than two times or as often as it wishes.

P-Noy amended the law and no one in Congress gave a hoot!

In his proclamation the phrase “AT LEAST” somehow transmogrified to mean “AT MOST”—which of course was wrong. Compounding the wrong, the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) directed all the 42,000+ barangays of the nation to comply with it year after year. So it subsists to this day and no one seems concerned.

Limiting People Power

What happens now to the right of citizens to convene their Barangay Assembly—which, although admittedly still dysfunctional, is their parliament and legislative governing body?

Composed as it is of all voting residents, this Assembly has superior authority over all officials and units of the barangay government. After all, it’s literally a CONSTITUENT ASSEMBLY! And it has right to convene at any time, as many times as it wishes. But the President says otherwise.

Through Proclamation No. 260 he drastically limits the community’s capability to meet and address local governance issues. Too bad for autonomy and the principle of subsidiarity.

Perhaps it doesn’t occur to the President, or no one tells him, that this Assembly is our local parliament, that it has power to straighten out policy or programs through initiative, as well as power to discipline any official through recall. Powerful!

It also doesn’t seem to strike the President that delimiting or reducing the frequency of barangay deliberations violates the need for free and open exchange of ideas at the grassroots. Does he know that this also constricts the democratic space and strengthens the hand of trapo oligarchs who seek to monopolize or manipulate local governance.

Awaken, Not Deaden, Citizen Initiative!

Someone should tell him that in issuing the Proclamation, he was in violation thrice over: 1) he unilaterally changed the law (Sec. 397 of R.A. 71600) without benefit of congressional action or concurrence; 2) he curtailed the right of citizens to exercise their sovereign right to assemble and engage in deliberative conversations as often as they wish; and 3) he hinders the formation of the popular will on how the local government should proceed with its business (usually expressed in resolutions or declarations after copious debate, discussion, or exchange).

All this was brought home to me during the aftermath of Typhoon Sendong in Cagayan de Oro over three years ago.

Because more than one-third of the city’s barangays were badly punished by Sendong, I thought that it would help the victims greatly if the survivors throughout the city could assemble and regroup. They could then take stock of the damage, the dead, and the missing. But as it happened, they were loath to assemble because they were told that they had already done so two months earlier (in October).

When the DILG Secretary visited the city, our movement suggested that he authorize the Barangay Assemblies to convene so the affected ones could do stock-taking and plan their recovery while the less affected ones could discuss how to marshal their resources to help victims.

To my consternation, the request was denied on the spot. They had already convened twice before Sendong, he said. I explained in vain that that was before and we were now in an emergency, that in any case the law does not limit the number of times a Barangay Assembly can meet, and that the bottom line should be to let the barangaynons decide because it’s their Assembly after all.

All I got for an answer was a look that said, “Mas marunong ka pa sa akin!” as he turned to leave. Beside him at the time was DSWD Secretary Dinky Soliman who could only shrug and flash her signature smile.

In any case, it struck me that the very agency charged with empowering people by promoting the spirit of autonomy or self-governance was preventing the exercise of initiative in victimized communities. I was clearly one of the affected people, and so was the Gising Barangay Movement, but we were ignored! It made me wonder if the attitude reflected the President’s, because it certainly didn’t lift my enthusiasm or that of the people around me.

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaViews. Manny Valdehuesa is former UNESCO regional director for Asia-Pacific, secretary-general of Southeast Asian Publishers Association, director at Development Academy of the Philippines, member of Philippine Mission to the United Nations, vice chair of Local Government Academy, member of the Cory Government’s Peace Panel, and PPI-UNICEF awardee for outstanding columnist. You may email him at  valdehuesa@gmail.com)