BACOLOD CITY – A change in leadership and the return of the Masskara Festival as one of the country’s biggest festivities after a two-year hiatus due to the coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) pandemic has topped the developments here in 2022.
Still coping with the setback brought by the global health crisis, city residents ushered in a new administration and gradually adjusted to the new normal on the way to economic recovery alongside the challenges posed by the government’s public transport modernization policy.
New city mayor
The May 9 elections paved the way for former Negros Occidental third district congressman Alfredo Abelardo Benitez to take the reins of the city government after defeating incumbent Evelio Leonardia, the city’s longest-serving mayor.
Benitez, a businessman who ran under the Asenso Bacolod coalition, garnered 171,893 votes, higher by almost 65,000 than the 107,447 votes obtained by Leonardia, to frustrate the latter’s bid for a third and final term.
“This is a win for the people of Bacolod. The change that we’re looking for is what I intend to bring,” Benitez said after he was proclaimed.
Leonardia went on to file an electoral protest against his opponent before the Commission on Elections (Comelec), seeking a manual recount of the votes in all 450 clustered precincts and asked the Comelec to declare “failure of elections” and conduct special polls due to alleged massive vote-buying and the presence of fake voters.
However, in a Sept. 7, 2022 order, the Comelec Second Division dismissed the case for “being improperly filed and for being insufficient in form and content.”
As the local chief executive, Benitez was elected national chairperson of the League of Cities of the Philippines, and appointed by President Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr. as the chairperson of the Regional Development Council in Western Visayas, the region’s highest planning and policymaking body, for the term 2022-2025.
‘Bringing back the smile’
From Oct. 1 to 23, Bacolod celebrated the 43rd edition of the Masskara Festival themed, “Balik Yuhum” (Bring Back the Smile), and a three-week festivity culminated with the visit of President Marcos during the arena dance competition at the Paglaum Sports Complex.
Almost 200,000 visitors joined the various events held in seven festival sites across the city.
The theme was a nod to Bacolod’s tagline as the “City of Smiles”.
In the first week of December, the Masskara Festival was recognized for Best Festival Practices and Performances during the Aliw Awards 2022 held at the Manila Hotel.
Benitez, also awarded the Best Festival Catalyst/Organizer, said the Masskara is “a celebration of the strength and resilience of Bacolodnons in times of crisis and tragedy”.
“And this has never been truer than this year’s celebration – Masskara Festival 2022 was testament to the Bacolodnon’s enduring spirit as our city rises and recovers from the impact of the pandemic. Masskara Festival has brought back the smile in the faces of Bacolodnons,” he added.
Maria Teresa Manalili, chief tourism operations officer, said Bacolod could hit more than 500,000 visitors by the end of the year, which is higher than the target of 400,000 visitors set by the Department of Tourism.
“Definitely, the city’s tourism industry has started to recover. If you ask the hotels and restaurants, they were able to recover during the Masskara Festival. It has brought a major impact to tourism as it opened the local economy,” she added.
Modern vs. traditional jeepneys
One of the most controversial developments in this city in 2022 was related to the implementation of the national government’s Public Utility Vehicle Modernization Program (PUVMP).
The problem came about as operators of traditional jeepneys whose franchises have already expired were no longer able to register and operate their vehicles for non-compliance with the program’s requirements.
On Nov. 7 and 8, old jeepneys stopped plying their routes to avoid the risk of apprehension, leaving hundreds of commuters without any means of transportation, especially during rush hours, and prompting several schools to suspend face-to-face classes.
As a result, the traditional jeepneys were given two weeks to continue operating while discussions on how to address their concerns regarding the PUVMP were held.
When the moratorium lapsed on the third week of November, Benitez announced that about 2,445 traditional jeepneys with expired franchises have been allowed to operate under interim service permits from the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board (LTFRB) until March 2023.
They will be granted such permits after registering their units as private vehicles with the Land Transportation Office (LTO), he added.
The granting of more leeway to traditional jeepneys is the result of the talks initiated by Benitez with the officials of the LTO and the LTFRB, as well as with local transport groups. (PNA)