Ateneo School of Government

Roxas-Romualdez redux

RR redux

Just a final thought on the affair involving the secretary of the interior and the mayor of Tacloban in the wake of typhoon Yolanda’s devastation.

A blow by blow account has already been provided by Cocoy of their conversation as exposed by Cito Beltran. The whole “you are a Romualdez and he (the President) is an Aquino” and didn’t want to be misconstrued as running roughshod over the town in his desire to bring relief to the local populace, in my view, is just a side-bar to the incident. The real controversy is whether the actions of Roxas in seeking to take the lead in the relief efforts of the town were necessary.

Dean Tony La Viña of the Ateneo School of Government argues in his regular column that it was “entirely appropriate” and within his rights and prerogatives for the President, given the paralysis experienced by the local city of Tacloban in Leyte, to take the lead in coordinating the disaster relief efforts. But he also contends that

if that formality required the local executive to give up his powers, I believe that such formality, whether in the form of a letter or ordinance is void ab intio and illegal as it violates the Constitution, the DRRM [National Disaster Risk and Reduction Management] law, and the Local Government Code.

The principle of the LGU as first responder in times of natural disasters was often repeated during the relief operations. It is enshrined in law. The following passage comes from Section 15 of the DRRM law cited by La Viña above

The NDRRMC [National Disaster Risk and Reducation Management Council] and intermediary LDRRMCs [Local Disaster Risk and Reduction Management Council] shall always act as support to LGUs which have the primary responsibilIty as first disaster responders.

Under the Local Government Code, a municipality such as Tacloban is responsible for such things as solid waste disposal and environmental management services, including general hygiene and sanitation, municipal buildings, school buildings, clinics, health centres, sports facilities, water supply systems, sewerage, public cemetery, police and fire stations and the municipal jail.

As lead coordinator for disaster response in the first instance, LGUs are meant to bring these assets to bear in dealing with the situation. What happens then when its resources are incapacitated or swept away as was the case in Tacloban? Well, common sense dictates that either the regional disaster council acting as the LDRRMC (since the disaster affected areas comprised several provinces) or the NDRRC (chaired by the secretary of national defense) should step in to help.

We know based on Prof Solita Monsod’s chronology of events that that is exactly what happened. The national government did not hold back or play petty politics in Tacloban contrary to the claims made by its mayor. Their responders were on the ground from day one. As Monsod put it, 

It doesn’t look like Tacloban and the Romualdezes were left out in the cold. Politics does not appear to have been a factor here. Where did it come in? Not in the walk, only in the talk. Roxas wanted to protect his principal [President Aquino], and Romualdez wanted to protect himself (he was afraid that if he signed anything, it could be misinterpreted as a resignation).

Going back to La Viña’s point that such legal cover was not needed and in fact illegal if it required the mayor to “give up his powers” I would argue that turning over his lead role in disaster response to the national government would not be an abdication or resignation on his part. It is clear that the city of Tacloban did attempt to make good on its lead role as first responder, but it had very limited resources after the storm weakened its capability.

Allowing the national government to takeover this function in the second instance, after its efforts fell short, was both appropriate and ideal so that a single chain of command and control could be established.The last thing you would want in such a crisis is for meagre resources to be squandered simply because the effort was being directed by competing centres of authority.

But even if it could be misconstrued as a resignation, so what then? Simply work around the language and construction of the letter or ordinance to phrase it in a way that makes it clear that it isn’t. The national government was only seeking a time-limited mandate to direct local resources so that it could complement its own in addressing the crisis from a united front.

What is pitiful is the mayor making a spectacle of himself by insisting that he maintain his lead coordinating role when it was clear that he lacked the required assets to deal with the magnitude of the problem and then attempting to pin the blame for the inadequacy of the response on the national government.

La Viña argues that this exposed some holes in our DRRM framework. I disagree. I feel that all it exposes is the inability of some local politicians to set aside narrow-minded interests for the sake of the public’s safety and well-being.

Local autonomy means that LGUs have the “freedom to fail” by refusing help from the national government (when it doesn’t suit their needs or requirements). That is why the DRRM law distributes roles in times of crisis as it does. If we want to do away with this balance we would have to remove the LGUs’ ability to refuse help. In other words, we would have to “dummy proof” the laws concerned. But that is just it, we should not have to do so.