The Real Problem With Island Mayors

by John Marino

June 7, 2002
Copyright © 2002 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. JOHN MARINOWearing a shirt painted with unflattering caricatures of the governor and slogans protesting her actions, Canóvanas Mayor Jose "Chemo" Soto took a long walk Tuesday from his hometown in the foothills of Puerto Rico's rainforest to the governor's mansion in Old San Juan.

Soto and a group of loyal supporters wanted to give the governor an earful for allegedly ignoring their town's needs, including woeful water service, and spending $48 million earmarked for projects in Canóvanas for other purposes.

Despite the arduous journey, the mayor was not given an audience with the governor, although Chief of Staff César Miranda said he was willing to meet with the group to discuss their problems -- a pledge he said he has made to Soto for several weeks before the mayor took off on his trek.

But Soto, whose shirt included swastikas plastered near the likeness of the governor, brushed off the offer, calling Miranda "a good for nothing" and insisting he wanted a direct talk with the governor or nothing at all.

Although the stunt made headlines in newspapers and prime coverage on television news reports, it's doubtful that the mayor's antics endeared him to administration officials -- who vehemently denied his charges.

Soto, who earned the moniker "Chemo Jones," a take on the explorer Indiana Jones of Hollywood fame, for using municipal personnel to hunt down „el chupacabras" a few years back, is one of the more eccentric mayors in Puerto Rico, but certainly not the only one.

Amazingly, to many, he was reelected after going on nightly missions to find "el chupacabras," a mysterious being which was "sighted" across the island a few years back after allegedly attacked farm animals.

Cataño Mayor Edwin Rivera Sierra, whose quest to erect a statue of Colombus by a Russian sculptor has cost his poor community millions, is another eccentric municipal official. Known as "El Amolao," or the "sharp one," the mayor was reelected even after several bizarre news conferences where he waxed poetic about the pleasures of "Palmolives," his pet name for Heineken beer -- which raised serious concerns about his mental health.

The huge Colombus statue lies in pieces in a Cataño park which remains closed to the public.

Both Soto and Rivera Sierra have a certain jibaroI charm which no doubt helps their popularity.

But their antics still beg the question -- why do their townspeople elect them to office?

One reason may be that most of the 78 mayors in Puerto Rico have limited power. The central government runs their schools, their public housing projects, many of their parks, their police departments and their emergency medical services.

The central government also doles out construction permits, zoning permits and has jurisdiction over towns' natural resources.

While the comic antics of some mayors highlight this problem, the lack of municipal power is no laughing matter. Indeed, full representative democracy in Puerto Rico is hampered by the lack of power wielded by those sitting in town halls across the island.

The Municipal Autonomy Act of 1989 was supposed to alleviate this problem by spinning off powers held by the central government to municipal governments. But it has been slow going.

Only a handful of municipalities, large ones such as Caguas, Carolina, Bayam an and Ponce, have achieved true autonomy, able to grant business and construction permits and the ability to develop and enforce their own zoning regulations.

The importance of achieving this is essential for government efficiency, as developers can go to town halls to receive all their required permits, rather than spending days going from agency to agency in San Juan to meet requisites.

And mayors in autonomous municipalities have begun to undertake some real changes. Carolina Mayor José Aponte is constructing his own water system to satisfy the needs of his town. Caguas Mayor William Miranda Marín is analyzing high-tech garbage incineration to solve the solid waste disposal needs of his town. San Juan Mayor Jorge Santini wants to open his own schools.

Part of the reason for the slow pace that municipalities are becoming autonomous is that the requirements for achieving the status are difficult -- especially for small towns. Computerized financial systems, with proper audit controls certified by the Comptroller's Office, and the creation of a Master Zoning Plan, approved by the Planning Board, are two of the more arduous challenges faced by island towns.

But these requirements are necessary to demonstrate that municipal governments are ready for the challenges posed by autonomy.

The real reason for the slow pace is that both New Progressive Party and Popular Democratic Party administrations have failed at making municipal autonomy a priority.

It's one of the reasons that town meetings are so sparsely attended by the public, which allows municipal council members, usually elected on the same ticket as the mayor, to be nothing more than a rubber stamp for the mayor's initiatives -- regardless of their worth.

True autonomy will come when the mammoth commonwealth government agencies like the Education Department and the Housing Department are broken up into several municipal agencies.

Interestingly, federal auditors, commenting on the recent corruption scandals in both agencies, have suggested such a recipe to improve the quality of services both agencies deliver.

Calderón administration officials have said that the municipalization of these large agencies was a long-term goal, but they have made no aggressive moves in that direction.

That's too bad because giving towns more power would truly revolutionize Puerto Rico's government for the better.

Only when townspeople believe they have power over running their schools, their public housing and other essential services, will they will embrace that bedrock of American democracy -- the town hall meeting.

And island mayors will be too busy with the nuts and bolts of providing town services to waste time pursing any Quixotic adventures.

John Marino, City Editor of The San Juan Star, writes the weekly Puerto Rico Report column for the Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached directly at: Marino@coqui.net

Self-Determination Legislation | Puerto Rico Herald Home
Newsstand | Puerto Rico | U.S. Government | Archives
Search | Mailing List | Contact Us | Feedback