The man most everyone loves to hate | Lifestyle.INQ

OCTOBER 27, 2022

Every day, chairman Francis Tolentino reports for work at the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA) headquarters on Orense Street in Makati, hoping the hours ahead would be uneventful.


No such luck.  Each day is rife with complaints, from road mishaps stalling an already exasperating traffic situation, to perennial floods laying waste a city bursting at the seams.


He is the man people love to hate if only because his office, the MMDA, has overall responsibility over the Metro’s 16 cities and one municipality and their multitude of problems.


“Every day, there is a crisis,” muses this former Tagaytay mayor who can be credited for turning what was once a quiet religious retreat capital into a bustling tourist destination.


Tolentino previously headed the League of Cities of the Philippines which probably made him top of mind in the search for a strong leader for a rather unwieldy metropolis.


PDI File Photo/Niño Jesus Orbeta

No, he did not get the MMDA job just because he was a former classmate of President Benigno Aquino at the Ateneo, Tolentino said, and this was confirmed three years ago by Palace spokesperson Edwin Lacierda.


The President, Lacierda said, saw the former local chief executive as a “technocrat” who is fond of feasibility studies that could provide rational solutions to the Metro’s multiple problems.


But the job entails more than that, Tolentino slowly realized.  His role is much more daunting, he found out. The never-ending crisis in the Metro has convinced him that every day is like a grueling job interview. “You have to (keep proving) that you are qualified,” he said.


In 2010, Tolentino succeeded Bayani Fernando and Oscar Inocentes who were both appointees of former President Gloria Arroyo.


Detractors describe the current chair as the first non-Manila resident to head the MMDA, but he insists he is a true resident in many ways.


THROUGH A SPEED RADAR, METICULOUSLY: Tolentino admits he’s a stickler for details. PDI File Photo/Arnold Almacen

He said he spent most of his formative years up to law school in Metro Manila, and recalled riding jeepneys from Makati to Shaw Boulevard during his high school days at the Lourdes School in Mandaluyong.


Today, he resides in Muntinlupa but stays in Tagaytay on slow weekends. Manila, he points out, is just an hour away from Tagaytay, a city that his family has ruled for half a century.


His father Isaac served as Tagaytay mayor for 25 years, from 1954 to 1979. A member of the Liberal Party and a critic of the Marcos administration, Tolentino’s father was jailed along with other opposition leaders, media workers, and activists.


The younger Tolentino could not recall exactly how long his father was jailed. “I was so young then,” he said.  But he remembered visiting his father at Camp Crame where he shared a cell with broadcast journalist and newspaper columnist Louie Beltran.


“I remember we were waiting for my father’s release but someone stopped it because Imelda Marcos had just been stabbed,” he said, referring to an incident on December 7, 1972 when a knife-wielding man lunged at the former First Lady during an awards ceremony broadcast live on national television.

HANDS-ON: The MMDA chair shows off his Segway-mounted traffic corps. PDI File Photo/Niño Jesus Orbeta


After the 1986 Edsa People Power revolution, Tolentino was appointed by then President Cory Aquino to take over his father’s post as Tagaytay mayor. This was shortly after he finished law at the Ateneo Law School and passed the bar.


In 1992, Tolentino ran for mayor but lost to rival Benjamin Erni. Two years later, he was proclaimed the rightful winner in the elections. He ran unopposed in 1995 and started building Tagaytay as the alternative summer capital to Baguio City after the latter was devastated by a powerful quake in 1990.


Tolentino was succeeded by his brother Abraham who, after completing three terms, ran and won as representative for the seventh district of Cavite. Abraham’s wife Agnes succeeded him in the 2013 elections.


His critics point to this as proof that Tolentino’s family has been building a dynasty, to which the MMDA chair countered:  “I think a dynasty means handing down positions on a silver platter. These two positions (in Cavite) were well-contested and the people decided. We even dislodged a well-entrenched political family,” he added, referring to the Remullas—Gilbert and Boying—whom his brother and sister-in-law defeated in the 2013 elections.

SWAMPED: A typical Metro scene after a downpour. PDI File Photo/Edwin Bacasmas


But even his detractors acknowledge that the Tolentinos had a lot to do with the tourism boom in Tagaytay.


“If the private sector is not yet ready, the government should serve as the catalyst to boost the tourism potential of a locality,” said Tolentino whose initiatives earned for his city a Galing Pook award in 1998.


But public perception and response to another of Tolentino’s initiative have not been as positive lately.


The MMDA’s first integrated bus terminal system for provincial buses in Metro Manila, a major project started on the orders of President Aquino, met with mixed reviews mainly from affected passengers and bus operators.


Tolentino earned both flak and praise when the new bus depot at the Uniwide reclamation area in Parañaque was opened to the public on August 6 this year.


Under the scheme, provincial buses from Cavite and Batangas using the Coastal Road are only allowed up to the bus depot.  This means that passengers would need to transfer to another public utility vehicle to reach their destination, thus making their trip longer and costlier.


A group calling itself The Coalition of Filipino Consumers (CFC) has launched a signature campaign asking the President to re-think the bus hub idea until the necessary intra- and inter-city transportation system is in place.


Jason Luna, CFC convenor, said the MMDA idea has caused heavy traffic in the area that affect mostly Cavite-bound passengers that the MMDA estimates at 45,000 a day.


The MMDA project, Luna said, lacked a thorough study and preparation as it allowed buses to wait for passengers in the terminal for an average of two hours.


Instead of listening to the woes of affected commuters, the CFC official said Tolentino focused on the beautification of the terminal by setting up fountains and a playground.


“We are suffering every single day and this administration does not feel our pain. We pay extra fares just because of this scheme. We are affected by a more serious traffic gridlock because more vehicles flock to this terminal the entire day,” Luna lamented.


But other groups have been supportive of the scheme.


The party-list group 1-Utak described the MMDA move as proof of “political will,” the final implementation of a plan that has been languishing far too long on the pipeline.


In an interview a few days after the Uniwide bus hub opened, lawyer Vigor Mendoza, chair of 1-Utak, said the new system was a work in progress, which would allow the government to adjust the scheme based on feedback coming from the riding public.


“Maybe the MMDA is just experiencing birth pains. It’s a matter of improving the system’s flow,” Mendoza told the Inquirer.


The issue became more complicated when talk about the flawed contract between the MMDA and the Uniwide Holdings Inc. surfaced, with the latter being embroiled in a long-standing legal dispute with several corporations.


The MMDA, in its March 2013 contract with Uniwide, agreed to sublease 1.4 hectare of the 10-hectare reclaimed land the latter has been leasing from the Manila Bay Development Corp. (MBDC). Until the contract expires in two and a half years, the MMDA has agreed to pay Uniwide P80 per square meter or P1.2 million in monthly rent for the land that the terminal occupies.


The problem is, the MBDC terminated its lease contract with Uniwide in 2010 since the latter has stopped paying rent, a case that went to court which ruled in MBDC’s favor.  The Court of Appeals ruling ejected Uniwide from the Parañaque lot and ordered the company to pay MBDC P256 million in back rentals.


On May 30 this year, the Securities and Exchange Commission ordered Uniwide to dissolve and liquidate its assets, saying it was “beyond rescue.”


But Tolentino said he has his reasons for dealing with a troubled company like Uniwide. The MMDA chair said Uniwide is the proper party to deal with in subleasing the property and not the MBDC because it is currently in possession of the land.


“If there is a court order asking us to pay MBDC the rent, then we will comply. But without it, we will continue to pay Uniwide,” Tolentino said.


The government, in fact, saved a significant amount of money when it chose Uniwide’s parcel of land as the site of the terminal, Tolentino contended.  “There are no other sites available. If there are other private lands, the lease fee is about P450 per square meter, a lot higher than P80 per square meter,” he said, adding that it took MMDA two years to look for a suitable lot.


“Operations of the terminal should not be confused with the issue between Uniwide and MBDC. It does not affect us,” he added.


Despite the flak, Tolentino considers the central terminal as his biggest contribution to the MMDA so far. “After 10 years, you will thank me for starting this even if a lot of people are trying to sabotage it,” he said, adding that there would be positive changes on Metro Manila’s traffic once all the three bus hubs on the outskirts of the metropolis are in place.


As for the passengers’ resistance to the new bus system, the MMDA chair said: “A lot of us are hard-headed. We always want to go back to the old habit of parking anywhere and boarding a bus anywhere we want.”


Tolentino also dismissed criticism of the bus terminal as coming mostly from groups of bus operators who he said coddled those behind the colorum buses plying Metro Manila roads.


The problems in the Metro can be overwhelming and the solutions slow in coming, but he believes in the process, Tolentino said. “Sometimes I get frustrated that this process is so tedious. But this is how things are done,” he said.


The MMDA chief got similar mixed reviews when he wrote a letter to book author Dan Brown, expressing his displeasure at the latter’s description of Metro Manila as “gates of hell” in his latest novel “Inferno.”


In his Twitter post, lawyer Ferdinand Topacio, former counsel for former First Gentleman Mike Arroyo (and now counsel for TV-movie star Claudine Barretto) reacted to Tolentino’s letter: “Some people have never heard of the term ‘literary license.’”


After Tolentino’s letter to Dan Brown, netizens took to describing Metro Manila traffic as “hellish,” an obvious swipe at the MMDA chairman. But no regrets, said Tolentino. “What I did was the right thing to do.”


As if he didn’t have enough trouble as it is, the MMDA chair was again turned into a whipping boy online when he floated the idea of expanding the number coding scheme on Edsa. The idea, which he called Road Space Rationing Program, was patterned after the traffic scheme in congested Rio de Janeiro in Brazil.


“That proposal was not well explained and was misinterpreted,” he said of the scheme that would add more carless days to Metro car owners on top of the already existing ban based on the last digit on their license plate.


But Tolentino remains undaunted by critics:  “Somebody has to say that there is a certain point when we have to accept that societal sacrifice is a recipe but not a total solution.  Somebody has to say that and it has to be me,” he added.


IF academic degrees were the sole basis to qualify for the MMDA job, then Tolentino would win it, hands down.


Aside from a law degree from the Ateneo de Manila University where he also took his undergraduate degree in Philosophy, he also has a doctorate in Judicial Science and majored in International Environmental Law in Tulane University Law School in Louisiana, USA.


He also has a Master of Laws from the University of London and received a graduate diploma in public administration from the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service in New York City.


The MMDA chair has a master’s degree in national security administration as well from the National Defense College of the Philippines.


They’ve all helped him on the job, Tolentino said of his multiple degrees.  “All things you learn would either hone you or prepare you for what you are doing.”


But the academic heft also intimidated his MMDA staff who initially perceived Tolentino as a strict and perfectionist boss.


Cora Jimenez, MMDA general manager, described the chair as a strong-willed leader who always encourages his people to “think outside the box.”


She recalled one instance when she told Tolentino of her plan to start a project using water lilies to make crafts. “Why not a raincoat?” Jimenez quoted Tolentino as saying.


The MMDA general manager said her boss’ leadership style is quite different, leading to his being misunderstood by some employees.


He does tend to micro-manage, Tolentino admitted, as he always wants to know every detail of the work being done.


“I really need to be apprised of the details. What happened, what went on, and what will happen. That is what I think is important. Delegation would probably be combined with trust and confidence,” he added.


Could this be why he turned ballistic recently when the team sought him out to seal a traffic service partnership with the MMDA? It turns out he had expected the top bosses and had felt slighted that the job was delegated to a group of junior officers.


The chair also used the occasion to air his complaints against a column that appeared in the Inquirer’s Motoring section on September 18, discussing the MMDA’s suggestion to further limit the ownership and use of private cars to ease traffic congestion in Metro Manila.


Prior to the meeting, the Inquirer had written the MMDA chair, proposing a partnership with the agency on a special public service project. The MMDA gave a positive response and arranged the meeting.


According to the team members, the project they were proposing needed data from the MMDA which the agency was releasing for free and for public consumption.


“So anong makukuha namin diyan? Iyong GMA nagbigay sa amin ng equipment. They donated us communication equipment for that project worth millions of pesos so kayo in turn, hinihingi ninyo ang data namin di ba? Anong mabibigay ninyo in return (So what will we get from that project? GMA network has donated communication equipment for this project worth millions of pesos. You’re asking for our data, right? What can you give us in return)?” Tolentino had said in a mocking tone, according to the Inquirer news report.


Tolentino had also expressed dismay that the media outfit sent only junior officers for the meeting, the news report said.


“Alam mo kasi sa mga ganitong klaseng usapan, ang kaharap namin mga CEO na. Sa TV5 sina MVP (Manny V. Pangilinan), sa GMA, si (Felipe) Gozon… Bakit kayo, kayo lang? he asked the team (For this kind of partnership, we deal with CEOs, like we did with TV5 and GMA. Why did Inquirer send only junior officers?)”


In a phone conversation with the top boss later, Tolentino stressed that he did not mean to be “rude” to the team and denied berating them over the Inquirer story in its Motoring section.


Tolentino said that if he came on too strong, it was because of his “resoluteness” in explaining how things work in the agency and the things they do to address the issues thrown at the MMDA. He said this particular stance is often misunderstood as being rude or angry.


The MMDA chair said he was sorry if the members of the team felt they were berated but explained it was never his intention to do so, and that he would wait for the concrete proposal from on the special project.


The incident tended to show the MMDA chair at his worst.  But his being blunt, unintentional though it might be, does no wonders for his public image.


Of course, you could put it down to stress, the expected but unwelcome “extra” that comes with the job. So, when he’s not letting off steam on unsuspecting guests, how does this official deal with the stress?


He reads a book or watches a good movie, Tolentino said, adding that the last movie he saw (as of August, when this interview was conducted) was Johnny Depp’s “The Lone Ranger.”


That may be how he sometimes feel when besieged by Metro Manila’s multitude of problems and the metropolis’ never-ending crisis.  No wonder he’s thinking of going back to local governance when his MMDA term expires. Either in Tagaytay or in Cavite, Tolentino said he still could not say.


“(Local governance) is my line of work. I’m like a fish you’re putting back in water,” he said. •





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