Such a radical concept may seem as alien to our time as the parchment and quills with which our founding documents were penned, but some Texans are discovering the opportunity that exists to fight back at the local level — in their city halls, county courthouses and in their schools.
Witness the grassroots effort to secure a vote on San Antonio’s streetcar project, a $280 million proposed rail system. A petition drive to force a vote on the project turned in 27,000 signatures, finally catching the attention of local leaders. In San Antonio, where only about 53,000 people voted in the last mayoral election, such numbers are impressive.
San Antonio’s new interim mayor seemed to agree. On July 31, the mayor decided that the petition drive was a sure sign that residents had soured on the project and recommended to the City Council that it be shelved for the time being. The city then voted to pull the $32 million it had committed to the streetcar, indefinitely delaying the project.
The streetcar’s defeat was a tangible victory for San Antonio taxpayers. Spurred by local concerns about a local project, citizen activists took matters into their own hands and demanded that government listen to the voices of the people it represents. Could the same have been done in the halls of Congress, or at the gates of the White House? The barriers seem high. Even in the Texas Capitol, Texans’ concerns aren’t always heard as much as citizens wish.
But even in a city of 1.4 million, with 10 council members who each represent districts smaller in size than the districts of Texas’ 150 state representatives, the concerns of the people can be heard and responded to.
South of San Antonio, the brush fires of liberty are being lit by Texans who decided to start their own city from scratch. Von Ormy, a small town with just over 1,000 residents, started the revolution by incorporating in 2008. Since incorporating, Von Ormy has done everything possible to provide quality services to its residents at the lowest possible cost.
When the city incorporated, Von Ormy had a property tax rate of 39 cents per $100. Every budget since has reduced property tax rates. This year, the mayor is proposing a budget that eliminates the property tax entirely and shifts the focus of the city’s revenues to sales taxes.
In Sandy Oaks, a community about 1/2 hour east of Von Ormy, residents just voted to incorporate. As with Von Ormy, the citizens of Sandy Oaks will be able to determine the size and shape of their government, what services it provides, and at what cost. And Savannah, a community between Von Ormy and Sandy Oaks, is holding an incorporation election in November.
A government of, by and for the people may be hard to come by in Washington, D.C., but in Texas communities, citizens can and should hold their government accountable. It may be the only level of government where that is still possible.