Late on a recent Saturday night, Aguirre Mayor Oscar Monge was still working at the run-down, two-story office building in Quepos that serves as the headquarters of the Municipality of Aguirre.Outside, large, black, block letters identify the building: “Municipal Palace.”
“This is no palace,” the 60-year-old grandfather of five later said, the bags under his eyes sagging heavy.
It’s certainly no palace compared to Los Altos, a mega-resort project just down the road, or the $16 million marina project investors are planning here (see separate story), or pretty much any of the beachside resorts that line the road leading to nearby ManuelAntonioNational Park.
Despite the tourism boom here, more than a quarter of the households in Monge’s central Pacific canton are still in poverty. The mayor says the economic disparity may explain why Aguirre is what he calls the country’s most corrupt municipality – where the previous mayor is banned from managing public funds after allegedly misusing them (TT, Aug. 17) and a municipal official is being investigated for allegedly demanding illegal payments from a developer.
Monge, who co-founded the Aguirre Labor Organization (OLA) party just before running for office, summed up his anti-corruption campaign succinctly: “The mayor of Aguirre has no price.” The sawmill worker has promised to give the town of Quepos a facelift with a $7 million loan he has requested from the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI).
The loan, on which the mayor’s five-point plan (see sidebar) depends, has yet to be approved. Monge’s promises include a new $2.2 million municipal building he compared to the U.S. Pentagon. The NationalUniversity sociology student who dropped out of college before graduating (“because I make more as an office worker than a sociologist in this country”) is also promising a technological institute to train area residents in engineering, tourism and environmental management.
The Quepos native who fancies himself an author took a few minutes out of his busy Saturday-night work schedule to sit down with The Tico Times in the eerily empty municipal building to talk about politics, his five-point plan and why he’s so insistent that he’s not going to cheat anyone. Excerpts:
TT: Why did you want to be mayor and what will you do now that you hold the seat?
OM: I’m from Quepos – born here, studied here, married here. I know the entire canton, especially people in the labor sector.
I’ve had some businesses here, a sawmill and a gas station. I wrote “La Real Historia de Quepos” (“The Real History of Quepos”)…
I didn’t become mayor to fight for political power. I don’t care about it. We created the (OLA) party to project a future, not to stay stuck in the same place like we are now.
My government has an established plan. I have only five points because I didn’t come to waste my time or cheat anybody, ¿comprende? Those who want to cheat you will have a plan with 30 or 100 points, as some have in the past (see sidebar).
Who will foot the bill for your plan?
We have the ability to pay.We’re going to take out a loan with the Central American Economic Integration Bank (BCIE) for $7 million.
We’ll have much more ability to pay when a proposal to reevaluate property (for tax purposes) is passed. Many locals and foreigners alike here are used to paying taxes as if it were charity for the municipality. (The loan) hasn’t been approved, but we’re in the final processes.
Local residents have complained of the municipality’s haphazard enforcement of the Maritime Zone Law (TT, March 3, 2006). The municipality has demolished coastal constructions, some of which have been around since before the law. What can people expect from this administration, and are more demolitions planned?
I do what the law orders me to do. If people have had the time and opportunity to meet the legal requirements but didn’t, even if their beach property was here before the law, the law must still be enforced.
There are no plans for demolitions right now.We do them based on our own studies and complaints we receive from, for instance, the Comptroller General’s Office, which has specifically singled out developments on our beaches.
For more than three decades, the government has been promising to fix the pothole-riddenCoastal Highway
from Quepos to Dominical (to the south).When will it be finished?
It’s an issue of the central government, not ours. The local government has put pressure on the central government to finish it as soon as possible, but that is a national highway, though inside the (Aguirre) canton.
There are several new efforts to combat drug use and crime in Quepos. How long ago did these problems become a public issue in Quepos?
(It started) when Quepos began to develop into the tourism center that it is. Just like the central government has taken measures to show Costa Rica is not a sex tourism destination, it’s not a drug destination, either.
An important issue in Quepos is security. We have some cooperative programs with U.S. cities. They use equipment for a year and then they get rid of it even though it’s in perfect condition. They invest a lot in security.
Police in Ft.Lauderdale (in Florida), for example, and in the state of Georgia are going to help us with basic equipment such as bulletproof vests, inflatable boats and nightsticks.
How many police officers do you expect Aguirre to have by the time your term is over?
I hope to have 40. Now there are seven municipal police officers. There are about 45 National Police here. The central government also has plans to send us 10 Tourism Police officers to be stationed in Manuel Antonio.
Does the municipality have the infrastructure and capacity to process and support the growing number of major projects here, such as the $16 million, 300-slip Quepos marina?
Yes. When you undertake a large project like that, other public institutions are involved. All we have to do is (issue) the construction permits and keep an eye on environmental safety.
Not all permits have been issued yet, only the parts that have been developed up to now. If they do everything in accordance with the law, it can be a quick process – they don’t need chorizo (bribery).
You’ve called Aguirre the most corrupt municipality in the country. Former Mayor Alex Contreras has been banned by the Comptroller General’s Office from managing public funds for five years and was fined $95,000 for misuse of public funds. Then, earlier this year, a municipal secretary was arrested for allegedly demanding illegal payments from a developer.Why so many corruption allegations?
Inheritance. It’s a problem of past administrations. I’m transparent. I have many enemies in the street. But I came with my head high and I’ll leave with it high.
Life has given me a virtue: I don’t like money, which is why the mayor of Quepos has no price.
It’s a highly corrupt municipality, but we’re moving forward step by step. Not everyone here is corrupt. There are good people. And the people of the municipality are very noble.
Is Quepos becoming a beach town with unfettered development?
No.We are going to make this place prettier with projects such as a malecón – a levy that will protect the town from floods – and the beautification of the streets of Quepos…Quepos is very beautiful, but if we leave it in the hands of national and foreign investors wanting to build … some are conscious of the environment, and others aren’t.
Monge’s Five-Point Plan
To be funded with a pending $7 million loan from the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI).
1. A technological institute to train Quepos residents in engineering, tourism, construction and environmental management. To be opened by 2009.
2. To contract the machinery (backhoe, excavator, front-end loader) to be able to fix Quepos’ roads and develop public works projects.
3. A new, $2.2 million municipal building that will be more than three times the size of the existing municipality.
(“It’s going to be a sight to see, elegant, because the people of Quepos deserve it,” Monge said.)
4. The purchase of land to be the site of a landfill.
5. A social welfare housing project.