Thursday, March 17, 2005

Two ladies and different drummers

Two ladies and different drummers

Posted 00:39am (Mla time) Mar 17, 2005
By Juan Mercado
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A14 of the March 17, 2005 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

TWO handsome, brainy, articulate women named Mary Ann have grabbed headlines and prime time in Cebu's often truculent media. In their mid-30s, both have college degrees, are business-like and are increasingly visible in this crammed metropolis' radar.

But the similarities end there.

One of the ladies is the brash prosecutor of neighboring Talisay City. Mary Ann Castro wants to fill the Cebu City Prosecutor's Office boots. She also applied to become a judge. "I'll bring beauty and brains to the bench," she says without skipping a beat.

"Chief fiscal," snorted a skeptical Mayor Tomas Osmeña. "Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha. Big joke."

All Castro brought, so far, is yet another firestorm. An unexpected coalition of judges, lawyers and fellow prosecutors raked up her less-than-brilliant record. It is one capped by cases before the Ombudsman. Her high-profile dates, after a failed marriage, were tracked by the media. That hasn't helped her.

The other lady is a low-profile “barangay” [village or neighborhood district] captain. For her solid record of service, citizens in 39 sitios of Lahug gave Mary Ann de los Santos and ticket a landslide mandate. That thrashed Mayor Osmeña's all-out drive to beat her. "Meet Mary Ann -- the giant killer from Lahug," Sun-Star captioned the story.

De los Santos' no-nonsense settling of disputes, through voluntary barangay mediation processes, saw 936 out of 938 cases settled in a year. Only two went to congested courts.

This is 99.7 percent efficiency. A tough review by independent experts led by a former Supreme Court justice validated this new national achievement record.

An earlier Ateneo School of Government study found that in one year, 236,452 cases were settled out of a total of 279,115 barangay disputes recorded nationally.

"This is an 84 percent solution factor," wrote the Philippine Judicial Academy's Bernardo Ponferrada in a study of the "Barangay Justice System and Other Alternative Dispute Resolution Mechanics." It's a telling indicator of "substantial number of potential cases that never reached the court because of the effective intervention of a settlement mechanism."

That record bagged for Lahug the coveted Bureau of Local Governments Supervision Award. De los Santos will get a P125,000 check from President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo for the Lahug projects.

"Credit citizens who mediate as well as our systems," she says. "If our experience can improve mediation, as practiced in over 41,943 barangays nationwide, that would be a bonus."

The two ladies serve the same constituency within the same metropolis. Yet, reaction to them starkly differ.

"She Isn't Fit," read the Cebu Daily News' banner on its report of a manifesto, sent to Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez, bucking "even mere endorsement" of Castro.

Backed by the highly regarded Judges Gabriel Ingles and Meinrado Paredes, the prosecutors bluntly said the City Prosecutor's Office "does not need someone with a tarnished reputation and a baggage of graft cases as its chief."

The Cebu Lady Lawyers Association Inc. (Celia) and Child's Legal Bureau concurred, saying that other prosecutors were more qualified. But the Legal Alternative for Women Inc. was more explicit. Castro was nailed by the Ombudsman in four cases, Law Inc. executive director Dolores Aliño stressed. These included monies in a drug case, a fling with a married man, meddling in other people's businesses and interference in a filed case where "she was not the resident prosecutor."

The critics are "only jealous of [my] accomplishments," she scoffed. Inggit lang sila? But Filipino chutzpah has always been Castro's signature.

De los Santos, in contrast, shuns bombast. In fact, she has a reputation for understatement. "Osmeña magic does not work in Lahug," she shrugged to puzzled broadcasters after she trashed, yet again, City Hall in the 2004 elections.

That's matched with sustained citizen consultations and innovative services, from postal services in barangays to deep wells and garbage collection. Nor does she wheedle City Hall for personal perks, be it handguns or bonuses. (In 12 Cebu barangays, the Commission on Audit reports, officials helped themselves to trust funds for Christmas bonuses.)

The BLG award is only the latest of the feathers in De los Santos' cap. It may also have nationwide implications for the informal system of dispute settlement nailed into place by Presidential Decree 1508 in 1978. Republic Act 7160 updated the system.

"A distinct characteristic of the system is its informality," notes the Philippine Judicial Academy study. "Lawyers are banned in the entirety of the process." Was it Dick who said in Shakespeare's Henry VI, "The first thing we do is kill all lawyers"?

Despite its success, "there are recurring doubts" since the system started 27 years back, Ponferrada writes. "Our courts are still congested" although the lack of judges is a crippling bottleneck, an Inquirer editorial observes.

In urbanized areas, author John Willem notes, judges and citizens hardly know who their barangay captain is. "This decreasing credibility...may explain why the backlog of cases is more serious in urban areas."

Maybe so. But the system worked in Lahug, within a major metropolis. De los Santos' experience could provide future guideposts.

Funny, but the paths of these two ladies apparently never crossed. Is it because they march to the beat of different drummers? In any case, Mary Ann, may I introduce to you Mary Ann?


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