Supporters of Bacolod Mayor Evelio Leonardia may find it difficult to see him return to private life as he bids farewell Thursday after serving as the top city executive for 18 years. It may be doubly hard for many others, whose government careers he had helped shape, as he descends the stairs of the Bacolod City Government Center, his “baby”, which his administration built in 2007.
The postcard-pretty City Hall, more popularly known as the “New Government Center”, and its well-kept sprawling grounds and pocket gardens, and the edifices surrounding the area that transformed the east side of the city into a beehive of economic activity, are just some of the legacies of the soon-to-be “Citizen Bing”.
“Please take care of my baby,” Leonardia told city employees when he attended his last flag-raising ceremony on Monday. The red shirt crowd cheered on the mayor with some mimicking his signature “fight! fight! fight!” shout out.
Leonardia nurtured Bacolod into one of the fastest rising highly-urbanized cities in this side of the Philippines, led the LGU to become competitive, most livable and most business-friendly among top HUCs in the country. He also ushered in a new economic era locally, leading Bacolod from the monocrop sugar economy to the emergence of newer industries–the BPO, service sector and retail with the coming in of SM Group, Robinson’s, Ayala Group of Companies, major real property development players like Megaworld, Cebu Landmasters, SM Prime, Ayala Land, among others – all during his watch, making Bacolod one of the most promising economic centers in central Philippines.
Despite the issues and baseless controversies thrown at his administration, Leonardia penetrated deep in the hearts of Bacolodnons with his signature “tumandok” slogan, making him an icon in Bacolod politics.
Bing, as Leonardia is known to family and peers, spent his high school years at La Consolacion College and finished his Commerce degree at the then La Salle College-Bacolod (now University of St. La Salle). He graduated cum laude in 1973. Six years later, Leonardia finished his Bachelor of Laws at the University of Negros Occidental-Recoletos. He passed the Bar Examinations with a rating of 81.90 percent.
Leonardia’s public service career started in 1978, when he was designated provincial field coordinator of Negros Occidental of the Department of Tourism. He later co-founded the now world-famous MassKara Festival during the time of Mayor Jose “Digoy” Montalvo. MassKara’s rising popularity opened new opportunities for Leonardia, who served as the festival’s first executive director.
He ran for public office in 1988 and was voted No. 1 councilor. He served as director of the National Movement of Young Legislators and president of the Philippine Councilors League-Negros Occidental Chapter. By 1992, Leonardia was elected vice mayor, enroute to his first term as city mayor in 1995. Following a brief rest, Leonardia returned to politics in 2004 and started his four-term winning streak that spanned until 2010 before being elected congressman of the Lone District of Bacolod in 2013.
In 2016, he returned to City Hall for his fifth term and consequently his sixth and final term in 2019. What Leonardia started blurred all lines that came with being the lone individual to have occupied all elective city offices. He also broke the stigma that a middle-class man can rise to the occasion and make an impact in politics, let alone the highest seat in the city.
LEADING THE WAY
Leonardia led the paradigm shift of Bacolodnons and their city. From a quiet economy to a highly-urbanized metropolis and the center of trade and commerce of Negros Occidental.
Under his administration, Bacolod’s trophy case was stacked as the LGU reaped numerous awards and citations including being a consistent awardee of the Seal of Child-Friendly Local Governance (2006, 2011, 2012, 2014, 2015, 2018, 2019); Top Most Competitive Cities in the Philippines (2006, 2017, 2018, 2020); a finalist in the search for Most Business Friendly LGU in the Philippines (2017, 2018, 2019, 2020) and Best Performing City in Excellence in Local Governance (2009, 2018, 2019).
MoneySense also regarded Bacolod as the Best Place to Live in the Philippines in 2008. The Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) and the Department of Budget and Management also cited the city as the Best LGU in Economic Management and the Best Financially-Managed City in the Visayas, respectively.
In 2010, Bacolod was recognized as one of the 10 Most Outstanding Cities of the Philippines, Most Outstanding City in Region VI for the Establishment of Day Care Centers, No. 2 in the 10 Growth Centers of the Philippines by the Asian Institute of Management, United States Agency for International Development and GIZ of Germany. It is also one of the 100 Next Wave Cities in the World for BPOs.
The DILG also gave Bacolod the Seal of Good Local Governance in 2011, 2012, 2018 and 2019 and, most recently, the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry named Bacolod as the Most Business-Friendly LGU in the Philippines on top of a similar recognition in 2008.
Leonardia, meanwhile, was named Man of the Year at the Asia Leaders Award in 2019 and Asia’s Outstanding Public Servant and Advocate for Peace and Good Governance of the Year at the 5th Asia Pacific Luminare Awards this year.
“This simply showed that if we were in school, Bacolod is a valedictorian: a student with the highest honors,” said Leonardia, in reaction to the National IATF announcement de-escalating the city under Alert Level 1 along with 38 other LGUs out of about 2,000 throughout the country.
The Department of Health (DOH) had rated the Bacolod COVID-19 management as one of the best in the country but despite the LGU’s performance, which had been benchmarked by other towns and cities, critics and political nemesis of Leonardia propagandized that the mayor was nowhere to be found during the pandemic.
The truth was, Leonardia never left town for two years. Not even to Bacolod’s next-door neighbor, Bago City, as he and Vice Mayor El Cid Familiaran and EOC Executive Director Em Ang, Dr. Chris Sorongon and Dr. Edwin Miraflor, Jr. and other medical frontliners of the EOC and the CDRRMO were burning midnight candles to assess daily our battle versus the pandemic spread. The result: the rise of COVID cases was controlled, Bacolod emerged as having the highest vaccination rate at 146 percent in Region 6 and was among the first batch of LGUs, together with 38 others, to be placed under Alert Level 1.
In as early as July 2021, Bacolod’s COVID cases steadily dropped. Thanks to the initiatives of local government and the support of its residents by practicing social distancing and observing minimum health standards set by the IATF. With Leonardia leading the charge, Bacolod was able to establish the first hospital-based BioLab in partnership with the Department of Health in July 2020, launched the first-ever Swab Mobile in the country to ensure fast and safe testing for both patients and frontliners and created the COVID-19 Vaccination Council by virtue of Executive Order 83.
The CoVac, also headed by Ang, was one of the first established by an LGU in the country. The mayor also paved the way to create a “Cash For Works” initiative, various livelihood programs for displaced workers, summer job opportunities, DOLE TUPAD and cash aid assistance for residents. At the same time, Bacolod became one of the few LGUs in the country to be given two tranches of the Social Amelioration Program to some 115,643 recipients. To fast-track the city’s thrust towards herd immunity, Leonardia signed a MOA with AstraZeneca for the purchase of more than 600,000 doses of vaccines, making Bacolod among the top five cities who signed a tripartite agreement with AZ for the procurement of vaccines.
In February 2021, Ang submitted the city’s vaccination plan to the Department of Health VI. The city’s plan was regarded as the most prepared vaccination program in Western Visayas with a readiness rating of 75.9 percent. Along this line, Leonardia also led the city to partner with private institutions and organizations in the provision of safe and convenient vaccination centers for Bacolodnons. With various civic organizations, business group and other concerned individuals, vaccination centers were made accessible even to the working class with five VAX-i buses, graveyard shift on-site and drive-thru vaccination and even a 24-hour vaxx drive at Jollibee Gatuslao and Jollibee East.
With the initiatives being undertaken by the City of Bacolod through the EOC, IATF and the CoVaC, COVID-19 cases in Bacolod saw a steadily decline in the month of July and early September. This prompted Iloilo City Mayor Jerry Trenas to rally the local government of Western Visayas to adopt the initiatives of Bacolod City in controlling the spread of COVID-19. The valiant efforts of Leonardia, the EOC, IATF and CoVaC was instrumental in the city’s de-escalation to Alert Level 1 by the National Inter-Agency Task Force, making Bacolod one of 38 LGUS to be downgraded to the lowest quarantine classification since early this year.
ECONOMIC RECOVERY PLAN
With COVID-19 striking a heavy blow on the economy, Leonardia spearheaded the crafting of the Economic Recovery Plan, a strategy highlighting increased government spending on infrastructure which, in turn, will spur job and livelihood opportunities for the locals. The mayor included projects such as the development of the Bacolod City College (P350 million); Bacolod Relocation Site (P350 million); the rehabilitation of the city’s three main markets (P150 million); the MassKara Coliseum (P800 million) and the Bacolod Museum (P260 million).
The pandemic also managed for Bacolod to invest on infrastructure development and created a better, more conducive business climate and introduced Smart City innovations. The “Leonardia Effect” that built a positive image for Bacolod, resulted to the entry of top real estate players MegaWorld, Rockwell, SMDC, Cebu Landmasters, AyalaLand and Camella, among others, as they tapped Bacolod as their prime destination for their multi-billion-peso projects.
LEAVING A LEGACY
Leonardia will step down as mayor for nearly two decades knowing that he nurtured Bacolod to what it is now. The New Government Center, which was built in 2007, is now a perennial city landmark and one of the most photographed city halls in the Philippines.
Progreso Village 1 and 2, a flagship project of the Leonardia administration, is widely considered to be the biggest relocation site in the country with more than 6,000 lots.
Established in 1997 and the brainchild of Leonardia, the Bacolod City College was built to provide affordable, quality education for poor but deserving students. As of 2020, the city-funded college has produced more than 11,000 topnotch graduates that are more than ready and capable to take on the professional world. The school’s P3500-million project, which includes the state-of-the-art Activity Center, will bolster its chances to be elevated to university status.
On the overall, Leonardia will leave behind close to P3 billion in infrastructure projects including road widening, installation of street lights, drainage systems and bridge repairs, Barangay Health Centers, school facilities and the new City Health Office next to the Bacolod City General Hospital in Barangay Vista Alegre.*