The Mother Mayor

Sally Ante Lee is the first woman mayor of Sorsogon city, Philippines. She has been active in social service for the last forty years. She is loved by the citizens of her city because of her empathetic approach of governance. In an interview with OBOR, she details her experience as a mayor and advocates for sustainable lifestyle

What are the hardships of being a woman mayor? What challenges did you face while executing your duties as the mayor of Sorsogon city?

Believe me, many people even in my bureaucracy, did not agree with me.But it did not change my perspective and vision. I floated my ideas, many people did not agree butmany came along. I welcomed everyone saying: come, join me. I don’t make promises. I like getting things done. You just have to be honest and sincere. You have to earn the respect and trust of people. It is just that you have to be disciplined, committed, honest and engaging then you won’t face any difficulty.

You believe in a participatory model of governance. What steps have you taken to engage with people in the decision making process?

The progress of a city depends upon its people. The ideas of the development should be in sync with the requirement of the people. It has to come from people because their development will ensure city’s overall progress. So if you fail to engage people and address their issues, how can you say your city is progressing or it is a livable city?

For that, you have to educate and empower them. I sit with my people and ask them what they want. I ask them about their problems and their ideas of development.

You talked about livable cities. What are the parameters of a livable city according to you?

Safety is an integral criterion of a livable city. If you feel safe in moving around a city, it is a livable city. It is not just about physical environment but the natural environment too. Livable city is about clean air, efficient waste management and adequate civic services. Livable cities are where you want to be and feel relaxed and peaceful.

Most of the cities across the world are suffering because of negative impacts of climate change. The issues like air pollution, sea level rise in coastal cities, mounting waste, disaster risks. What can we do to save our cities?

In my first term, I said that citizens have a responsibility towards their environment. We have to change our lifestyle to sustain our environment. I have learnt that sustainable development is possible only if there is a change in people’s lifestyle. Humanshave destroyed the environment. It should be us who repair it. All of us must change our lifestyle.

I change my bed sheet and towel once a week. I wear my dresses multiple times. I try to save water at my level. I conserve water when I take a bath. I don’t use shower, I use a bucket. I had cut my hair, now I use less shampoo, less water. You could yourself be an example of what you want to attain.

You have mentioned in your speech about people coming forward and helping the Municipal Corporation in social works. How do you encourage locals to contribute in such projects?

We have asked affluent communities of my city to help in our programmes and they have responded positively. I ensure that their assistance complementsmy programmes so that people get total benefits and we can see change on the ground. This is a question of talking and planning; this is a question of telling people that this is so important. If you have a genuine cause, people will certainly help.

When UN formulated the New Urban Agenda, it was a general complaint from municipal corporations that they were not involved. What is your viewpoint?

They come out with ‘the best policies’ and‘the best framework’ and then bring it down to us-the implementers, who have to implement their policies and programs. Look what happened to Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). They had 144 cities, but only piloted 12. What about other 132 cities? They are left behind. Many of them still don’t know what MDGs were. Now, we are talking about SDGs and New Urban Agenda. The engagement of local bodies and city leaders should be at the center of planning and formulation of such policies. 

Every mayor has programmes for eliminating poverty, for health and education, sanitation and so on, but they have set the targets according to resources available. They need to be engaged more for the success of such international agendas.

You have done commendable work in the housing sector in your city. Please explain.

House is a basic necessity for anyone. I could see the feeling of somebody who goes to work in fields and then when they go to their homes. How can they have enthusiasm and zeal to work if you are not comfortable in your house? If you just have to sleep somewhere thenyour dignity is lessened. If a house is dilapidated, it should be replaced. Even if someone owns a small house, it changes a person’s living standards and outlook. It transforms a person. They should be assured that they could be independent to have a house and as a city we provide them that. Housing, water, electricity and the basic needs have to be provided to call a community independent. There should be no open liquor drinking, no gambling in an independent community. I have built houses for the poor with the help of civil society organizations and kind affluent class who donated their land for constructing houses for the poor. This initiative has helped in building a better community.

What strengths, according to you, your city has in comparison to other cities in Philippines or ASEAN cities?

Other cities should look up to us. I have tried to remove corrupt practices, illegal activities such as gambling, and discrimination. These are our city’s strengths.

What is your message to the new mayors who are taking over the responsibilities from the old ones?

I would like them to work and not play politics. You should follow your heart. It’s just a question of what’s in your heart. Do not pretend, because somehow the truth will come out. I am a religious person. I listen to the Bible, it inspires.

How can you remove politics from it? Getting elected as a mayor is anelectoral process, sometimes you have to take political decisions.

During elections, you have to get votes from people. But if they don’t want to vote for me because of some reasons, it’s ok. But, after you are elected, you should feel freedom. Work should not be affected because of political reasons.

What changes you think are required in the local governance systems? Do you think mayors have been given enough powers? How is the relation of elected representatives with ULB officials?

Yes, you have to strengthen them else they would not be able to work. The relation between the bureaucracy and elected representatives has to be strong. I as a mayor have to be in good relations with the legislators because everything that you do has to be approved by the legislators. Even in trying to make a memorandum of association, if they will not give me the authority to partner with the other association, I cannot. There should be an extensive agenda where you talk about your vision, where you discuss what decisions you are taking and why.

During your tenure as a mayor, what have been your best and worst experiences of working with people? What was your learning in the process? What are your achievements?

I do the things that make me happy. I learn, meet people and travel. When I see people living a more decent and a happier life, I think that is my achievement. When I see my people are earning money, they can send their children to school, that is enough reward for me.