Ballots will include mayoral races for Grapevine and Southlake, city council races for all three cities, and school board seats for Grapevine-Colleyville ISD and Carroll ISD.
“The president, the national elections and even gubernatorial have more appeal, and they get a lot of coverage, but it’s the local ones—it’s your city council, your mayors, your school boards—those are the people that affect your life every day,” said Peggy Hendon, president of the Tarrant County League of Women Voters.
While candidate forums, campaign websites and local voter guides are available to help, understanding the role and responsibilities of elected officials is also key.
The cities of Grapevine, Colleyville and Southlake all employ a council-manager form of government, which means that while elected officials are responsible for setting policies and priorities, daily tasks are delegated to the city manager and city staff.
“The council-manager form [of government] actually removes some of the political aspects of the day-to-day operations of a municipality,” said Bill Stafford, president of the Texas City Management Association. The goal of a city manager, he said, is to “provide as much information as possible [so] council ... [can] make an informed decision when they are working on policies and laws.”
According to the Texas Municipal League, city council members are the city’s legislators, and their primary responsibility is policymaking. The highest elected office in the city is the mayor, who acts as the ceremonial head of government and presides over council meetings.
Colleyville Mayor Richard Newton, whose seat is not on the ballot, said one way to look at the breakdown of responsibilities between elected officials and city staff is to compare it to a private company. A city manager is like a CEO, and a city council is like a board of directors, he said.
“That demarcation between the staff and the elected offcials is there so the elected offcials do not drill down into the staff operations and give any directions to any staff members that should go through the city manager,” Newton said.
According to Colleyville Assistant City Manager Mark Wood, the exact responsibilities assigned to council members, the mayor and the city manager are enumerated in each city’s charter. Charters can be amended only by a citywide referendum vote.
Duties of the mayor and council members include hiring and removing a city manager, adopting a city budget, adopting city ordinances, appointing members to city boards and commissions, and setting priorities and goals for the city.
City managers are responsible for hiring and removing city employees, preparing an annual budget for council review and managing the daily operations of the city.
Outgoing Southlake Mayor Laura Hill said her duties as mayor are to build relationships with other city mayors as well as with county and state leaders that benefit Southlake residents.
“I call it, ‘working from the inside out,’” Hill said.
School districts are set up much like council-manager governments. Daily operations are overseen by the superintendent, and school board members, as citizen-representatives, set district policy.
Anne Lapkin has been a Grapevine resident since 2011 but said it was not until this year that she truly got involved in local civic issues. She has been asking candidates questions about issues she has seen in her community and sharing them on a Nextdoor group she helped to create to inform fellow residents about the upcoming election.
“As I started to get involved in this, I started to realize how much of an impact [elections] have on our lives,” she said.
Among other policy decisions, local elected officials set property tax rates, decide how budget money is allocated and have a say in the kinds of developments and businesses that come to a community. School boards also determine tax rates and set policies related to curriculum.
“Good government is making sure that everyone who wants to have input gets to have input,” Hill said. “Part of our huge responsibility as elected officials in every city is to make sure that citizens have an opportunity to be heard at our city council meetings.”
Hendon said she believes citizens should become more engaged in their community and advocate for issues that matter to them. Residents can reach out to their council members or ask to speak during scheduled council and school board meetings, she said.
“Sometimes, [engagement] is something you, as an individual, have to initiate. It’s not going to be put on your doorstep,” Hendon said.
Getting voters to the polls
Despite the immediate impact that local elections have on residents’ everyday lives, they typically generate lower voter turnout as compared with state and national elections. However, the November 2020 election cycle was different. Local elections in Grapevine, Colleyville and Southlake, originally set for May, were pushed to November due to COVID-19. As a result, those municipal races saw an increase in turnout because they were on the same ballot as state and national races.
In May 2019, 7.7% of registered voters in Tarrant County cast a ballot during the general and special election. In comparison, 62.21% of registered voters in the county cast a ballot during the November 2020 elections.
“We’re very hopeful that the momentum that was created in the November elections will be able to carry over into the local elections in May,” Hendon said.
Early voting for the May 2021 elections will run from April 19-27. Election day is May 1. For more information on local elections, voters can go to www.tarrantcounty.com/elections.