Known as the “Sugarbowl of the Philippines,” Negros Occidental is the country’s biggest producer of sugar. Because of their vast wealth, sugar mill owners and hacienderos once had a firm hold on local politics, often winning government seats.

“They were the so-called ‘royal families.’ If you’re not a ‘royalty,’ you cannot become governor or mayor,” recalls Mayor Evelio “Bing” Leonardia, stressing on the huge divide in terms of social strata.

Despite this stereotype, Mayor Leonardia, a “commoner,” ran for public office. He shares, “I belong to the middle class and I was fighting a dynasty. So I was risking my political career and future, just to show to the people of Bacolod that even if you’re not rich, if people want you, you can become mayor.”

Mayor Leonardia conquered what most people thought was impossible. With his steely resolve, he created a paradigm shift in the city’s political landscape.

Mayor Leonardia was born to a family of nine children, with him as the youngest. His father, Jose Tulo Leonardia Sr., worked as a government employee while his mother, Ester Ramos, was a housewife.

He graduated cum laude from the University of St. La Salle (USLS) with a degree in Commerce, then studied law at the University of Negros Occidental-Recoletos. He passed the bar examinations in 1979. During his final year in law school, he also worked at the Department of Tourism as the Provincial Field Coordinator for Negros Occidental until 1987.

He is married to Elsa Fuentes, a summa cum laude graduate, also from the University of St. La Salle, and a CPA Board topnotcher. They are blessed with two children, Evelio Jose and Loren Kara.

Bacolod’s MassKara dancers wow the audience at the World Mask Dance Exhibitions in Andong City Arena on Sept. 29, as part of the 2018 Andong Mask Dance Festival in South Korea. Accompanying the MassKara dancers are Mayor Evelio Leonardia, First Lady Elsa Leonardia, daughter Loren Kara Leonardia, Councilor Em Ang and Israel Salanga.

In the 1980s, the MassKara Festival was born out of economic crisis and tragedy. On April 22, 1980, the passenger ferry M/S Don Juan, which was traveling from Manila to Bacolod, sank and claimed 750 lives, including the wife, children, and mother-in-law of then Bacolod City Mayor Jose ‘Digoy’ Yulo Montalvo Jr.

The local government wanted to bring back the people’s smiles, so the city administration directly handled the festival in its first few years. But when the load became too heavy for the local government, then Mayor Montalvo decided to create a foundation dedicated entirely to manage the festival.

Leonardia became the founding chairman of the MassKara Foundation and he himself drafted its constitution, where he included a provision that whoever holds the position of chairman must not hold any government position. When he was elected as councilor, Leonardia automatically left his post in the foundation.

“I had no plans to be in politics. I just took things as they came and did what had to be done wherever I was. I was always guided by the drive to excel and doing the best that I can in all my endeavors,” the mayor says.

To a “commoner,” education is the greatest equalizer. Hence, one of his priorities when he first took on the post as mayor in 1995 was to establish the Bacolod City College. This proved to be financially challenging, the city administration realized. Thankfully, the free college tuition for state colleges and universities was signed into law by President Rodrigo Duterte in 2017. To date, the Bacolod City College has produced over 10,000 graduates.

“Bacolod City College will be there for generations. Education may be intangible, but it affects the core of our society. Lives will change for the better and when that happens, the people and the city will naturally become better off,” Mayor Leonardia states.

Mayor Leonardia, assisted by other city officials, distributed a total of 68,000 free school bags with school supplies to pupils of 46 public elementary schools in Bacolod as classes began in 2018.

Another meaningful project for Mayor Leonardia is the Progreso Village Relocation Site for the city’s informal settlers. “Like many other major cities, we have our share of informal settlers. And we’re continuously bombarded with cases of ejectment. “When these cases are filed in court, landowners always win,” he says.

The 88-hectare property is designed for about 8,000 households, with basic facilities that include primary and secondary schools. As a major step to further develop the relocation site starting this year, the city is allocating P350 million for its roads, bridges, streetlights, drainage system, and other facilities.

For Mayor Leonardia, the local government is doing its best to make the relocation site as livable and comfortable as possible because uprooting a family is a traumatic experience for all involved. Leonardia also hopes to see the day that when a family needs to be ejected, they would voluntarily go to Progreso Village because they know “they will even have a better life there.”

There were roadblocks along the way, for sure. In the case of Progreso Village Relocation Site, Mayor Leonardia’s concern are his political opponents who criticize the project, alleging that not everyone can be accommodated in the site.

“You know the story of the boy in the shoreline, where there were hundreds of starfish? He was throwing the starfish back into the sea. Somebody saw him and said, ‘Hey little boy, it’s useless because you cannot bring them all back.’ But the boy said, ‘Yes, I may not be able to, but for those I have thrown back, it meant their survival.’ Of course not everyone will be accommodated at Progreso Village. But it means the world to the ones we helped,” he says.

We believe and could see an increase in both the demand and supply of various real estate properties in the City of Smiles over the next few years as Bacolod gears up and revs up into an economic powerhouse, one that is anchored on the city’s changing and evolving real state landscape.
— Bhavna Suresh President and CEO, Lamudi Philippines

The critics of the current Bacolod administration are also slamming the P1.7-billion loan that the city secured to fund several flagship projects. But Leonardia believes what Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez personally told him: “If you have the borrowing capacity and you don’t invest, it is a crime.”

The budget is already earmarked to pay for the development of the Progreso Village Relocation Site and Bacolod City College, which will cost P350 million each. P200 million is set for new roads and bridges and the bulk of the budget is for the construction of the Bacolod MassKara Coliseum (P800 million).

Mayor Leonardia knows that critics will continue to be there. Despite his best intentions and his projects’ visible results, they will always have something to say. But he has figured out a solution that has turned into his government’s motto: ‘Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.’

“If we listen to them, nothing will happen. They say I have no political will because I don’t shout nor throw a tantrum. If that was the case, where would Bacolod be now? I believe political will is measured by performance,” Mayor Leonardia stressed.

I belong to the middle class and I was fighting a dynasty. So I was risking my political career and future, just to show to the people of Bacolod that even if you’re not rich, if people want you, you can become mayor.

He is not aiming for a higher government position, but the card is not completely off the table. “No plans, just keeping an open mind. My top priority is Bacolod. If an opportunity comes later on, I’ll cross the bridge when I get there. But as for myself, I’m not that ambitious. Doing these things for Bacolod, I believe, is already the apex of my political career,” Mayor Leonardia says.

Nevertheless, taking care of a city that has a population of over half a million is not an easy task. Ironically, what keeps Mayor Leonardia going are the very people who try to bring him down. He says that he thrives under the pressure from the people who oppose his projects, and the challenges along his way.

“There is such a saying that ‘A kite rises against the wind, not with,’” Mayor Leonardia quips.

Their dedication to bringing Bacolod City to new heights has brought their city many awards and recognitions, including landing the 8th rank as the Most Competitive Highly Urbanized City in the country—but earning the #1 spot in the Visayas region in 2018. The award was given during the 6th Competitive Summit and Awards of the National Competitiveness Council of the Department of Trade and Industry.

Bacolod City was also named as one of the four fastest-growing cities in the Philippines in terms of property searches, according to Lamudi.

It was recognized by The Manila Times as The Philippine Top Model City in 2017. The following year, in 2018, the same newspaper chose Bacolod as the 1st runner up for the Top Philippine Model City.

The Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry (PCCI) also awarded their city with Special Citations for being one of the Most Business-Friendly Local Government Units in 2017 and 2018.

Business permit registrations in the city reached an all-time high in 2018 when it recorded 23,187 registrations — an increase of 4,370 or 23.2 percent higher, compared to the figure before Leonardia came back as mayor in 2016.

Mayor Leonardia was also recognized for his efforts and was given the Lifetime Excellence Award and Mentor of the Year Award at the 2018 Asia Leaders Award at the Makati Shangri-La Hotel.

This iconic Bacolod City Government Center is the brainchild of Mayor Evelio Leonardia. It is also reputed to be the “most photographed City Hall in the country today.”

How he manages to lead his people well can be found in the song – ‘Act Naturally.’ “I belong to The Beatles generation and there is that song whose lyric goes, “All I have to do is act naturally.’ That is what I do, what I show to people. It is how it is. Maybe it’s the reason people take me as I am because I show them who I am. Now on my fifth term, I’m the longest-serving mayor of Bacolod. Probably, the reason why I’m still here is that because people accept me as I am,” Mayor Leonardia says.

Mayor Leonardia admits that his leadership style is consultative. “I go by consensus. Because I believe that while I’m very rich in experience and my outlook and horizon have widened by leaps and bounds over time in this game, I still don’t have a monopoly on good ideas.”

A kite rises against the wind, not with.

He humbly acknowledges the circumstances that brought him to where he is. “It is because of the people that I am here. I never take that for granted and I feel very indebted that they have chosen me. I owe all of this to them— to give it the best I can. Come hell or high water, we will pursue what we believe is the right direction for the city. The weather will always change, but as long as they give their support and cooperation, never mind the weather,” Leonardia ends.

In other words: Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead. — HELEN HERNANE


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