From a concerned citizen wondering where you’ve gone
Dear Mayor Joy Belmonte,
Let me begin by admitting I was quick to judge you. There’s not a lot of kindness being extended to you at the moment; in many ways, I feel for you. When I decided to write this, I was seething. I wonder to this day: How could you find it in yourself to be so brazenly self-serving, of all times, during a global crisis?
“I have decided to distribute these essential health items to 100,000 of our indigent families beginning tomorrow,” you said in the statement I will never forget. You followed this with the hashtag #JoyParaSaBayan––an imprudence I thought was the first nail to hit the coffin of what was initially hoped to be a gleaming political career. (Given that nearly every politician’s MO is to wash one’s hands clean, I’m shocked that you have yet to delete this tweet.)
Even after the fact, I found my stomach in knots when news broke out about your defaced Wikipedia page. The sexist remarks were disgusting and inexcusable; the jokes about your physical appearance, neither fair nor funny. While this behavior shouldn’t be condoned, it needs to be dissected in order to be understood.
You are the mayor of the biggest and most populated city in the Philippines. You have, under your wings, some 215,000 informal settlers looking to you for leadership, guidance and, in these desperate times, help. No other mayor has to deal with the scope of your responsibility: the number of breadwinners living paycheck-to-paycheck rendered jobless by the lockdown, the number of contractual workers not compensated since March 15 or, point blank, the number of citizens going hungry by the day.
When the going gets tough––this tough––perhaps it is best to tuck politics into your back pocket, show up for what you signed up for and roll up your sleeves. No self-promoting hashtags. No relief good packets with your name on them. This, after all, is not a chance for you to prove how bright you can shine. Now is not the time for pageantry. Neither is this an opportunity for you to paint yourself as some messiah that gets to decide when to be generous and how.
A city under a state of calamity is hardly a playground for your politics.
I was quick to judge you. But I know that in the same time it takes for a concerned citizen to internalize and react (whether positively or negatively) to events under your governance, the hope is that you are ready for what comes next. On wins: How does one maintain momentum? On mishaps: How does one make amends where it counts? Again, it is what you signed up for. But I digress: You are, at the moment, nowhere to be found. And it has suddenly become very clear through your chosen method of rehabilitating your reputation that you are more preoccupied with the optics as a public figure than you are the calling of a public servant.
Lay low is what any PR agent worth his salt would tell a personality under fire. Issue a carefully crafted apology and then lay low. You said: “When I reflect on these actions [of using ‘Joy Para Sa Bayan’ bags to send out food packs provided by the QC government, of lashing out at dissenters, of treating service to the people as transactional], I do not recognize the public servant that I aspire to be. The citizens of Quezon City deserve better. I will do better.”
Taking a moment to reflect is good. So is the ability to humble yourself and apologize. Not nearly enough people in government do so. But the fact of the matter is that we are on a clock. And the Filipino people do not have the luxury of time to stand by as you wait out the storm created by your transgressions. To date, your city has the highest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases as the virus continues its spread. This, I’m sure, you are well aware of. This is the bigger storm that looms above.
My message, mayor Joy Belmonte, doubles as a plea. I doubt you will want to go down in history as the public servant who showed up for photo-ops then stopped showing up at all. As vice mayor of QC for nine years before getting this promotion, you have had the opportunity to carefully observe what business as usual looks like in your territory. To be calculated when you pinpoint what has gone wrong and what stands to be improved (while the commander-in-chief at the time takes the flack). You could be graceful. You could be calm. You could revel in the fact you have the luxury of preparation. I suppose this is why your first few months as the new mayor were impressive; I gladly give you that. You showed initiative. You showed promise. You showed what the new business as usual could be like now that the torch has been passed on to you.
But this pandemic has changed business as usual forever. You are being stress-tested for your leadership, your vision, and your character in a crisis not a lot of world leaders would ever have to deal with in their lifetime. Inasmuch as I was quick to judge you, believe me when I say I want nothing more than for you to pass this test. Because you were right when you said that the citizens of Quezon City deserve better. They deserve more than being forced to pay the price with their lives for the lack of urgency, misaligned values, or distorted priorities of the officials they elected to look out after them.
So please, begin again…this time, more intelligently. There is no better time than now.
Art Alexandra Lara