Top Gun Trilogy (Part 2 of 3): Interview with the Mayor of Santa Elena, Ecuador, the Honorable Dionicio Gonzabay Salinas.
This is the second of a three-part series of interviews that will spotlight each of the three Mayors, from the Cantons that make up the Province of Santa Elena, Ecuador: La Libertad; Santa Elena; and Salinas. We chose to do this on the eve of their first 100 days in office. The format will be our traditional open, free-form interview format, used in the Pirates of the Pacific articles. The articles are all translated from the original Spanish language.
It was a smokin’ hot afternoon, especially for coastal Ecuador at this time of year. The air hung heavy, but our steps were light. We were off to meet the Mayor of Canton Santa Elena in Ecuador. As soon as we walked into the office I could feel it. It’s a “political thing” and you have to be a political animal like me to sense it. Politics is the only thing in life I have been involved in longer than my career profession of real estate. Haste was in the air. I could taste the drama. This would be a short interview. The Mayor had a packed agenda and no one had to tell me that. I just knew. Still, Mayor Gonzabay warmly ushered us in with a smile. Before the interview even began, I was already grateful that he had carved out a little time for us, when it was clear that it was time he didn’t have to offer at the moment. The gratitude remains and I thought he should be acknowledged.
HGQ: Thank you for taking the time to see us.
DG: Thank you for asking to see me. It is my pleasure.
HGQ: Let’s jump right into this. Tell us about how your political career got started. How did you arrive where you sit today?
DG: Before anything else, I again want to thank you for the time you took to interview the Mayor of Santa Elena. I am originally from the Canton of Santa Elena. From the local community of San Pedro to be exact. It is located in the Parish of Manglaralto. Back in 2000, with the push and support of my family, friends and neighbors, I had my first taste of political life, as I was asked to run for this very same position – Mayor of Santa Elena. The people wanted one of their own. Someone that could understand issues from their perspective. With the honor and privilege to run for Mayor, the people of Santa Elena were kind enough to bestow this position of honor, as I was elected Mayor back in 2000. It was a distinction and honor that I would be fortunate enough to receive again in 2005, when I ran for reelection. It was a pleasure to be welcomed as Mayor again and see that my neighbors in Santa Elena appreciated our accomplishments in our first term. Then we pushed our luck. I ran again in 2009 and was defeated by a margin of only 837 votes. Close and hard fought election campaign. I only regret we were not able to reward the handwork of our campaign team and the aspirations of our supporters in the Santa Elena community. The rest, as they say, is history. I ran again for Mayor in 2014 and was privileged to win back the Mayoral seat, as was the will of the Santa Elena voter, and we now aspire to take everything that we learned, both in two hard-earned previous terms in office and a hard fought campaign loss in 2009, and apply it to our current administrative term in office. We have a much clearer and firm vision of what we want to accomplish during this third term in office, serving Santa Elena.
HGQ: What key policy initiatives did you propose during your previous terms and how do you view the consequences of those initiatives on the current evolution of moving Santa Elena forward towards being an even more prosperous Canton?
DG: Well, I am very proud of the fact that we initiated the first genuine efforts to establish an oganized, proficient and fair real estate valuation system for the urban areas of Santa Elena, whereby we were then able to more accurately ascertain property valuations, thus creating a more equitable property tax collection system. It was essential to obtaining a more steady stream of revenue income for Canton Santa Elena. We could not have done this without the immense and full assistance of the Politechnic Superior School and we wish to again thank them publicly. It was an immense undertaking.
HGQ: Mayor, sorry to interrupt, but I couldn’t help notice your slight emphasis on the word “urban”, when you described the establishment of the real estate valuation system. Why, “urban”?
DG: Because in the rural zones, we encountered challenges. Mostly, we ran into the whole Comuna system and everything that entails. I say that respectfully, but it was a whole different challenge. Keep in mind that incumbent on having a regulated real estate valuation system, you must have an accurate understanding of property lines and lot boundaries. I have to be candid. That was at times a challenge in urban areas. However, in the Comuna region, where Escritura Publicas may never have even been established, defining lot lines alone was a considerable undertaking. Comunas are regulated and empowered by the Department of Agriculture and Livestock and they manage communal lands as ancestral heritage, very much revered. I can understand that from a historical context, but the present day reality is that the lack of clear lot lines creates a significant surveying challenge that impedes assigning proper and accurate real estate valuations. However, that wasn’t our greatest challenge with Comunas.
HGQ: What was?
DG: Comunas believe that as ancestral heritage, the land conveys to the Comuna and tribute should be granted only within the Comuna. As such, they oppose being taxed by municipal authorities, as they see it implying that they must pay tribute to an authority that supersedes the Comuna in hierarchy. In the end, the challenge proved significant and in order to avoid conflict with Comuna authorities, we backed down from assessing the rural lands. I admit it was not economically the most pragmatic thing, but politically it seemed necessary, at the time. However, the urban valuation and tax collection system went exceedingly well, allowing Santa Elena to gain much needed revenue, whereby many long delayed improvements were made immediately possible. The urban area benefitted greatly from this new infusion of revenue.
HGQ: What else can you share from those earlier efforts?
DG: Well, we embarked on a Canton-wide modernization effort, urban and rural. As an example, we created a technologically integrated citizen response system, where citizens could have a voice in what improvements were most required. It was important for me to use all tools of modern technology to connect with the citizens of Santa Elena. It was important to establish a two-way system of communication and empower the citizens not only to voice their opinions on priorities and improvements, but also to voice their preferred solutions. We are proud of that early accomplishment, which has only been enhanced over the years.
HGQ: I have to say, before entering your office, we were surprised to see the extent to which your team seemed to avail themselves of an integrated system of technology. Candidly, we don’t see this too often throughout Ecuador. I am talking even in the private sector. We asked for a few bits of data and details and the response and results were almost instant, thanks to the technology emphasis you mentioned.
DG: Yes, I am glad you noticed. Much is different now.
HGQ: Because of the technology?
DG: No, not just that. I meant…I was about to say…given the success of the current administration of President Correa in organizing and structuring the collection of revenue in a more modern and efficient manner, all the Provinces and Cantons benefit from that fountain of additional revenue. I can’t say enough about how significant and important that change at the national level has been. The Provinces, Parishes and Cantons all receive considerably more revenue. It was so different from the last time I was Mayor. I couldn’t believe what was now at my disposal to do good for the people of Santa Elena. Just as a quick example, as I was leaving office in 2009…and by then things had already dramatically improved…I left a municipal government that counted on $12 million of revenue aid from the national level. I walk back into the same office in 2014 and discover a revenue stream of $36 million from national sources. The figured tripled in 5 years. I am now steward to ensure that the revenue is put to good use, in both urban and rural areas.
HGQ: How do you intend to put that revenue to good use today and throughout your term in office?
DG: Well, in response to that context, we want to accomplish a more grand renovation of the road arteries, starting with the more urban areas, and consistently creating a more integrated road network throughout Canton Santa Elena, over the course of the next 5 years. We are keenly focused on enhancing and generating a tourism industry focus for Santa Elena. When people think of our Canton, they often think of the Provincial Capitol city of Santa Elena, which is land-locked and serves more as a commercial hub and, obviously, seat of government for the province. However, Canton Santa Elena boasts exciting tourism spots like Montañita, Olón and Ayangue. So, we are planning a heavy push in favor of tourism, supporting the national level campaign. Along those lines, we want to exploit our strategic Pacific Ocean location and expand our tourism centers to include many more towns than those I already mentioned, which are more mature and all recognized tourism markets. When tourists think “Santa Elena”, we want to empower them to envision well beyond just Montañita. We have many beautiful beaches in this Canton and the world should get to know them.
HGQ: Can you hint at any locations you have in mind?
DG: Well, there are many, but places like Ballenita, San Pedro, Valdivia and Liberator Bolívar to name a few.
HGQ: What else do you see in Santa Elena’s near future?
DG: We are going to incentivize small business, with better access to micro-credit loans. The type of loans that families can use to launch a brand new business venture that might not get funded otherwise. We need to empower our citizens to be self-reliant. This is critically important to the human condition. It can be a micro loan for expanding an ongoing agricultural project, funding to launch a fisherman operation, credit to open a shoe store or a shop that trades in Panama Hats. We want to inspire people to dream and create. We want to support an enterprising local culture. Overall, we not only want find funding for starting the business, but we want to create marketing opportunities to take locally produced wares, now sold only to a local market, and empower the merchants with an opportunity to export their merchandise and tap into the global commercial markets, where much needed revenue exists. We have to understand…we have to believe…that local crafts, if created with attention to detail and high standards, can readily find profitable export markets. Beyond that, we have to get back to basics, especially in the rural zones, where potable water must be made readily available in every community of Santa Elena. We need to provide a safe and aesthetic sewer system throughout the Canton. We need to work with the national government to keep bringing more health facilities and resources, especially those that reach the more isolated rural areas. We can never do enough for issues of health and education, in order to complete our mandate of improving the quality of life for our citizens.
HGQ: You have a lot of work ahead, as you embark on this very ambitious and equally very needed campaign. I recognize the benefit of the real estate valuation system and tax collection improvements made by your previous administration, during your earlier terms in office. I recognize the great strides and accomplishments made by the President Correa Administration and improving revenue collection and passing those funds down to the municipalities. I recognize all that. If directed efficiently, government can accomplish great things, aspiring to the will of the people. However, no government can go it alone. Not without the need for additional capital that can only be provided by the private sector. With that in mind, what is your vision for driving private sector capital, domestic and foreign, to the Santa Elena market?
DG: Well, that much needed campaign begins right here, at this desk. We need to prove ourselves. Prove that this is a serious Mayoral administration. One committed to the principles of integrity, honesty and fiscal responsibility. Without establishing those criteria as the cornerstones of this office, how will anyone in the private sector take us seriously enough to invest their hard-earned capital? Secondly, we have to show our commitment to the type of progress that must be shown to attract private capital. For example, the aforementioned infrastructure improvements to this Canton. We are proud of our previous accomplishments, but in our absence, we recognize that more work needs to be done as we look ahead, than all of what we accomplished in the past. We need to establish ordinances and regulations that are fair, reasonable and inviting to the private commercial sector, not create barriers that may be perceived as impediments to investing. Additionally, not only must we not create barriers, but we have to generate opportunities for incentives that create real world possibilities for private sector capital. We have to say, “If you come to invest in Santa Elena and you bring jobs and a long-term commitment to making our community a better place for all to live, then we will reward you according to your investment level and our economically responsible capacity.” Private capital needs to see that we view this as a partnership, with each side having responsibilities and the opportunity to contribute.
HGQ: What has been done to date, in order to create a coordinated system of communication between the public sector and private capital interests?
DG: Candidly, not enough. We aren’t connected, for example, to NGOs or similar entities that bridge the gap between public and private sectors. We need to improve our means of communications to multi-national corporations and international small business sector that are growing rapidly. We need to make authorities at the national and international level aware of the continued opportunities that exist in Santa Elena, so that bilateral discussions can begin as swiftly as possible. These are all part of my campaign objectives, for my term in office. To date, we have been mostly reliant on drawing an equitable percentage of national capital revenue and creating opportunities through loans from the Central Bank that, for example, have already jumped started our ambitious campaign to bring potable water and public sewer through Canton Santa Elena. Still, this does not negate the strong need to ignite interest in the private sector capital markets.
HGQ: Does this more limited role of reaching out mostly to governmental capital sources, at least to date, also transcend to municipal contracts? Are bids for projects promoted nationally or internationally?
DG: Again, as of right now, mostly nationally. We aren’t integrated yet with a systemic way to bid out internationally. Like we changed the real estate valuation system and the tax assessment/collection system, we now need to turn our attention to the matters you mentioned.
HGQ: Understood. So, I know you have to go to your next meeting. In closing, how do you wish to position Canton Santa Elena for the future? What vision do you wish to leave our international audience with, as they consider Santa Elena?
DG: I want everyone to recognize…to understand…that Canton Santa Elena has an exceptionally bright future ahead. We have come so far in only 7 short years since we split off and became part of an independent Santa Elena Province. We can’t forget those challenges anymore than we can forget the impetus for the enormous opportunity such a split offered. Since we split off from Guavas Province, our whole Province, inclusive of the Canton Santa Elena has seen exponential growth. We note that both domestic capital and foreign interests are increasingly focusing their attention on the premiere coastal opportunities that exist. They are looking at tourism, service industries and green eco-friendly ventures. The growth is palatable…energetic…and rushing forward. Dynamic residential and commercial projects are being proposed for the coast on an almost daily basis. I want citizens, investors and just the curious to feel that excitement. To understand our commitment to turning these plans and ideas into concrete project successes. We want to encourage those considering major projects to visit Canton Santa Elena and understand all that we have to offer, if in turn the investment capital will respect our desire for an orderly, well-organized, community-inclusive process that we wish to promote as the cornerstone of our future vision for Santa Elena. I genuinely see Canton Santa Elena and the Province of Santa Elena, 20 years in the future, as leaders of Ecuador’s dynamic economic expansion and amongst the most successful regions on a national basis.
HGQ: Thank you for your time.
DG: Thank you, as well.