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“We look at the life of Mayor Roncal and we see a manifestation of the Paschal Mystery”. This was Father Julius de Gracia’s reflection during his first mass in Tacurong as a newly ordained priest.

As one of the central concepts of Christian faith, the Paschal Mystery’s primary subject delves on the suffering, death, and Resurrection of Christ; but sans the religious lingo, Paschal Mystery is present in our everyday life. It permeates every niche of our existence… pain and happiness, defeat and victory, failure and success.

For people who keep themselves privy about the Montillas and the local politics in Tacurong, Father de Gracia’s description holds true.

Before assuming Tacurong’s mayoralty post in 2019, Roncal spent almost one third of his lifetime in hiding and seclusion, the price of being wrongfully accused of a crime he did not commit. For more than fifteen years, he had been deprived of many precious things in his life. He was not able to see his kids grow into young adults. He cannot spend Christmas and holidays with his siblings and family. He cannot go to a hospital when he was sick. And most painfully, he was not there to bury his parents when both of them passed away.

Years turned into decade and in that span, his being had been gradually shattered into pieces. At his lowest point, the motivation he had was the love and unceasing support of his family and the people back home praying for his vindication. And during the dark years of being in hiding, the glimmer of light in his desolation was the presence of his wife, Cora, who physically stayed besides him throughout the suffering.

Back home, Roncal’s siblings were tirelessly doing the best they can to seek justice for their beloved brother. After countless court appeals and agonizing wait that dragged on for almost two decades, the anticipated vindication came. His case was dismissed. The Roncal of old was whole again.

Tacurong’s youngest elected mayor

Many people would always wonder where Angelo Montilla got his nickname Roncal. The answer has something to do with the strong Catholic faith of his parents, Antonio and Asuncion. He was born on November 30, 1958, a month after Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, the man who would become Pope John XXIII, was installed as head of the Catholic Church.

Roncal’s foray into public service had its great share of feats and travails. He held the distinction of being the youngest elected mayor of Tacurong in 1988, the first elections held since the restoration of Philippine democracy. In a close-knit family of businessmen and professionals who relatively preferred a quiet life, he was the first to be immersed in politics. His leadership, charisma, and down-to-earth demeanor made people embrace him. His public service acumen paved way for a huge turnaround in governance, especially on infrastructure and financial administration, two areas that direly needed attention during that period.

His family’s Christian faith also served as the foundation of Roncal’s governance. His father would always tell him and his other siblings: “Kung gusto n’yo magserbisyo sa tawo, serbisyo kamo sang sinsero kag tampad. Indi n’yo paggub-on ang aton pangalan.” (If you want to serve the people, serve them with all sincerity and honesty. Do nothing that will tarnish our name.)

Sound governance at the local level made people decide to give Roncal the congressional seat in the lone district of Sultan Kudarat in 1995. It was in Congress that he built many of his legacies. His sponsorship of the bill converting the Municipality of Tacurong into a city towered among his many other accomplishments at the lower house. For Roncal, public service was his calling.

Price of being falsely accused of a crime

Roncal had so many plans for his district and his beloved hometown but those plans suddenly were cut short due to an unthinkable circumstance. In his public narrative on nutrition governance in March 2020, Mayor Roncal stated: “I was at the peak of my political career when something incomprehensible happened. I was accused of a crime I did not commit. What person in his right mind would mastermind the killing of two innocent city hall employees? For more than 15 years, I was in hiding. I cannot surrender because some people were out there waiting to take my life. Surrender would mean death for me.”

On the other hand, being on the run had ironically given Roncal the chance to immerse himself in an impoverished community. For years, he and his wife Cora had lived in a shanty that would leave them dripping wet during heavy rains. People living around were so poor. Roncal and Cora lived as one of them. There was scarcity of almost everything… livelihood, health services, social protection. Roncal would recall that there were several occasions people would come to their house begging to lend them money because there’s a family emergency. “When I asked them how much money they need, they would meekly say P200. Just for that amount of money, it seemed like a matter of life and death for them”, Roncal said. “When I told them they don’t have to pay for their borrowed money, it’s as if you’ve done a very big favor to them. For these great and humble people, every cent counts.”

Roncal would also gladly recount the time when they had to leave the place they considered home for several years. People in our small community would be seen lining up the streets to bid their sincere goodbyes to us. “I was deeply touched by their gesture”, he would say.

Continuing the Montilla brand of leadership

Justice had evaded Roncal for many years and, back home, it also denied the people of the kind of leadership that they passionately long for.

It was during the period of his absence when other Montillas took up the cudgels and continued the type of public service Roncal had started. Roncal’s younger brother Lino took over the reins of the city leadership from 2001 to 2010. For nine years, he had proven himself to be as outstanding as his older brother. The Canada-Philippines Kaagapay Seal of Excellence in Governance conferred Tacurong City in 2004 was a testament to Lino’s illustrious career in politics.

Lino was succeeded by his younger sister Lina who not only became the first lady mayor of Tacurong, but also propelled the city to greater heights in terms of progress and development under her nine-year tenure.

Fast forward to 2019. Local elections was looming and Mayor Lina was about to complete her last term in office. Tacurong City was in need of a new leader who would equal or surpass Lina’s achievements. Roncal re-entered the political landscape as a mayoralty candidate. He was a year fresh of becoming a free man after the dismissal of his case.

Long-awaited comeback of a beloved leader

Physically, Roncal appeared to be frail and the years in hiding seemed to have taken its toll on his body. Prior to the campaign kickoff, several people had doubted his chances of victory but Roncal and his camp were ready to change the narrative. True enough, he proved that he still had the backing of old voters and was even successful in convincing the millennial electorate to rally behind him. When the election dust had settled, Roncal was declared as the runaway winner. It was a rare successful comeback of a politician after almost two decades of political hiatus. The Roncal magic had once again worked. And he was ready for a restart.

A month before he took his oath, he wasted no time by holding several meetings with outgoing Mayor Lina and the LGU department heads to keep him abreast of the state of the city government. His transition committee immediately went to work and helped him lay the groundwork of his governance. He treated everything with urgency. For him, there is still so much to be done for his beloved Tacurong.

Just six months into his term, Mayor Roncal was able to implement one of his flagship projects: the construction of a state-of-the-art dialysis center. Empathizing with the plight of financially strapped dialysis patients and their families, Roncal sees the dialysis center as a big help to ease their financial burden. Meanwhile, the installation of solar-powered street lights along national highways and major thoroughfares of the central business district was also a priority project Roncal materialized before his first term ended.

Tireless worker who walks the talk

Inside city hall, it can be recalled that Mayor Roncal’s first-day-in-office message to employees was an appeal to improve customer relations. His marching order: demonstrate courtesy and respect in the workplace, especially towards the clients. “Bawal ang nagakurisong nga mga empleyado sa mga opisina sang city hall (frowning has no place inside the workplace)”, were the words he emphasized. “Customers must experience not only the comfort of LGU offices but also the hospitality and warm welcome of the employees”, the mayor would repeatedly say.

For young employees who had just experienced working under Mayor Roncal, they would always marvel at how passionate he was toward his work. He would set an example even in simple things. He would be the first to arrive in the office and the last to go out. Anybody can visit his office without prior appointment. One would worry that he or she can only get a few minutes of the mayor’s time but once he started talking to you, he’s not worried how long you’ve been staying in his office.

People admired his eloquence; they would listen attentively when he talks. He had a very sharp memory too. You mention one trivial thing today and he will remind you about it the next time you meet. You promise to deliver a task and he will remind you about it at the deadline. He always wanted to get every job done expeditiously. He repeatedly reminded employees that there is no room for complacency because people expect so much from government workers. And the government must always deliver.

Outside the confines of the city, he had also gotten the admiration and respect of his fellow mayors in Region 12. Despite being a first-termer, he was chosen by these local chief executives to represent them in the influential League of Cities of the Philippines. In the words of Bacolod City Mayor and LCP National President Evelio Leonardia: “Our LCP community had always held the Montilla brand of public service in high esteem.”

With Mayor Roncal in the driver’s seat, the future of the city was looking bright. Out of the blue, COVID-19 came and it disrupted everybody’s way of life.

The costly battle against coronavirus

The pandemic overwhelmed our public health system and debilitated the local economy. For more than a year, all the people, especially the local leaders, were coming to grips with its unprecedented impact. Mayor Roncal, despite his vulnerability to the virus, continued to be on the frontlines in the city’s battle against COVID-19. In his State of the City Address in February 2021, Mayor Roncal continued to appeal for the people’s resilience and discipline in the face of adversity. “This health crisis exhausted our financial resources and drained the energy of our health workers and frontliners, but there is no reason for us to lower our guard. This is the time to bravely face more challenges… this is the time to step up our actions”, he would say. In the face of crisis, Mayor Roncal showed the people that he is in the forefront of the battlefield no matter the cost.

Nobody thought it will cost him his life.

In the wee hours of June 5, 2021, after a week of being in self-quarantine, Mayor Roncal had experienced difficulty of breathing. His oxygen level plummeted. He was rushed to a hospital in General Santos City, tested positive for COVID-19, put in life support and from there on, fought for his life. The following day, Mayor Roncal succumbed to the coronavirus. The whole family was shocked at the mayor’s sudden passing. His siblings were all devastated and could not believe at the wild turn of events. Roncal’s older sister and brother-in law were admitted at the hospital a day before him and while he himself was inside the emergency room, Roncal would ask about the condition of his other siblings. Here was a man who was fighting for his life yet still worrying about the condition of his loved ones.

One could only imagine the pain Roncal’s death inflicted to his brothers, sisters, and family members. Fate separated them for nearly two decades and when the time came for them to catch up for the lost years of togetherness, this happened. Aggravating the pain was the fact that they cannot hold a wake for his remains due to the coronavirus protocols.

His wife, Cora, was left dumbfounded and crushed. Few days before that, she was talking with her husband about family and work. The next thing she knew, she was at the hospital praying profusely that her husband will survive.

The news about Mayor Roncal’s passing sent shockwaves not only around Tacurong but to people in other places that have known him or close to him. He was a big loss to his family. The city lost a great leader. Why him and why so early? There are so many whys and what ifs but at the end of the day, nobody can really fathom God’s will.

Leaving an indelible legacy

In hindsight, Roncal’s public service journey had taken a completely different route compared to other politicians. His passion and commitment to serve seemed to be his curse. When he was at a momentum, some forces of nature seemed to always conspire against him. There was always that sword of Damocles hanging above his head ready to fall anytime. But if dying this early is his destiny, his death was not in vain. Things may not have worked out the way he wanted it to be, but the people are consoled by the fact that, in his lifetime, he had done his part for his city and for his people.

One does not have to be a Christian to grasp the meaning of Paschal Mystery but time will come for us to realize that our life is actually patterned after it. We all endure our own battles. At times, we will bask in victory but there will always be moments we will get knocked down and even hit rock bottom. That is the cycle of human life. At some point in our lifetime, we will experience our own passion, death and resurrection.

In Roncal’s public service journey, he might have endured more suffering than personal glory but he will always be remembered as a leader who sacrificed his life in the name of service. His passing may have left a huge void in the hearts of Tacurongnons but he left an indelible legacy that future generations will not forget. There may not be enough time for him to serve his beloved city but there will be many other Roncals in this generation and the next who will continue his brand of public service. Our continuing future will still be brighter and Roncal will be there to light the way. (Allan S. Freno, LGU Information)