Fort Worth

Often overlooked, these elections can have the biggest effect on your life

A pothole ate your tire. Your taxes are going up. Commercial development is encroaching on your neighborhood.

Who do you turn to? Your Fort Worth City Council member.

Should the Police Department have civilian oversight? Is your bus late? Do you want to pay to go to the Fort Worth Botanic Garden?

Again, your City Council member has the power to help you.

On Saturday, May 4 Fort Worth voters will head to the polls to select a mayor, council members, school board representatives and, in some cases, a water district member. The voter registration deadline for the election is Thursday. Early voting starts April 22.

Voters can register through the Tarrant County Elections Office, 2700 Premier St. Application forms are available online.

These elections may be more crucial than federal and state ones, said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston who specializes in Texas politics.

“These elections are important because they’re taking our money,” he said. “We need to have a say in who spends it and how it’s spent.”

But in Fort Worth, and elsewhere, people pay little attention to local elections.

A little more than 8 percent of registered voters cast a ballot in the 2017 mayoral race. That’s a small improvement over previous elections — between 2009 and 2015 turnout for mayoral and council elections didn’t rise above 6.5 percent. Fort Worth tied with Dallas for the worst voter turnout in the country, according to a study from Portland State University, and our city was well behind others in Texas.

This low turnout can have a number of causes, Rottinghaus said.

For one, special interest groups and political parties rarely dip in to local matters, so voters aren’t galvanized as in big federal or state races. Local elections also happen during off years, where national and state issues aren’t driving conversations.

“When asked, people tend to say they didn’t vote because they weren’t told or weren’t reminded to vote,” he said.

The Fort Worth City Council controls a $1.9 billion budget, including debt and operating costs.

Council members determine a chunk of your sales and property taxes, pick the times for garbage pickup and dump hours, approve zoning changes and hear citizen complaints. They pick who sits on some boards and commissions and they approve infrastructure improvements like roadwork and storm water drainage.

Only District 2 Councilman Carlos Flores and District 9 Councilwoman Ann Zadeh are unopposed.

It’s not just the council on the ballot. The Fort Worth school district is the largest in Tarrant County.

The district has a $795.5 million budget and more than 82,000 students in 148 schools.

The Fort Worth school board is made up of nine single-member districts. Four posts are on the ballot. School board members serve four-year terms without pay. This year, no incumbents are running for re-election in Districts 3, 5 and 6, which are held by Christene Moss, Judy Needham and Ann Sutherland.

There is only one contested race for Tarrant County College Board of Trustees. Louise Appleman, who has served for 30 years on the board, is not seeking re-election for District 7

The election for members of the Tarrant Regional Water District Board also has major influence. Though the district is a small portion of Fort Worth, the water supply efforts touch 11 counties and include seven lakes, where board members have a say in conservation and recreation. Last year the district supplied more than 117.5 billion gallons of water for 2.1 million people. The board, through the district’s Trinity River Vision Authority, also control of the Panther Island project in downtown Fort Worth.

Two at-large seats are open. Incumbents Jim Lane and Marty Leonard are on the ballot with Mary Kellleher, who previously served on the board, and newcomers Charles “C.B.” Team and Gary Moates.

Regardless of the size of the election, Rottinghaus said it will have a direct impact for taxpayers.

“The smaller the election the closer it is to your life,” he said. “For most people when you ask them about the things they want corrected, it tends to involve local government.”

Diane Smith contributed to this report
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Luke Ranker covers the intersection of people and government focused on Fort Worth and Tarrant County. He came to Texas from the plains of Kansas, where he wrote about a lot, including government, crime and courts in Topeka. He survived a single winter in Pennsylvania as a breaking news reporter. He can be reached at 817-390-7747 or lranker@star-telegram.com.
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