Table of contents
I. Intro: Why Local Government Matters
When you hear the word government, your first thought is probably of the president or Congress.
While the federal government is making big-picture decisions about the nation’s economy, international relations, and other aspects of our future, another branch of government is making choices that more immediately affect us: the local government.
The roads we drive on, the water we drink, the schools we send our kids to, the construction of new buildings, the emergency services we depend on—these are a few of the many ways our local government directly impacts our lives.
When we say local, what do we mean? Well, there are a few layers to it. On a larger scale, there’s the state government. Then, there’s both the county and municipal (or city) government.
The local government is designed to reflect the federal government’s structure, meaning we have elected officials who are supposed to make decisions based on the best interest of the people.
The good news is, as citizens, there are plenty of avenues for us to engage and participate in San Antonio’s government. Many of the boards and departments that run the city offer opportunities for all San Antonians to share their opinions and, ideally, influence policy.
II. San Antonio Municipal Government
II. A. Council-Manager Form of Government
To understand the way San Antonio’s city government works, we’ll start by looking at the form of government we and many other Texas cities use: the council-manager form. This form of government is designed with community representation in mind and is led by the city council, the city manager, and the mayor.
Council-manager governments combine the political power of an elected governing body—the city council and the mayor—with the managerial expertise of a city manager. The council-manager form is used in most major cities in Texas (excluding Houston) and over 40% of U.S. cities with more than 2,500 residents.
Other cities use the “strong” mayor or mayor-council form of government, which gives their mayors more executive power.
In a council-manager government, the city council is the main legislative body, but the city manager and the mayor also share important responsibilities that we will cover in the next few pages.
The thing to remember for now is that under the council-manager form, the city council, mayor, and city manager work together to form the legislative, ceremonial, and administrative heads respectively of the city’s government.
II. B. Mayor/Council
As the primary legislative body in San Antonio, the city council makes most of the important policy decisions that affect residents and businesses. The city council is responsible for things like creating and enacting policy, planning and executing the city’s goals, passing local ordinances, and approving the city budget and tax rate submitted by the city manager.
City council, as part of its administrative role in city government, appoints many local officials including the city manager, city clerk, municipal court judges, city auditor, and some members of citizen boards and commissions.
Not sure which district you live in?
There are 10 council districts in San Antonio, and each district elects one representative. The election of city council members from districts around the city helps to ensure that residents of each of its diverse communities can vote for the council member they believe best represents them.
The mayor is elected at large, chosen to represent the city as a whole. At city council meetings, the mayor sets the agenda but receives one vote in the same way a council member does.
Other mayoral duties include emergency declarations, city-wide ceremonial duties, preserving peace in the city, signing documents to make them official, and setting the meeting agendas. The mayor is essential to policy development and the city’s political leadership.
II. B. 2. Engaging With City Council
As citizens of San Antonio, we choose our leaders by voting in local elections. General elections, held to elect city council members and the mayor, take place every odd-numbered year in May. Council members serve two-year terms with a maximum of eight years (four terms) as outlined in the city charter.
Besides voting in local elections, you can affect local government by attending the public city council meetings, held weekly, except for the fourth week of each month and all of July.
To speak in front of the city council or to submit a comment for review, you can sign up online at sanantonio.gov/agenda
To engage with your city council, you can take any of the following steps:
Comment online to submit questions, requests, and comments directly to city council
Address city council at a Wednesday (B session) public comment session
Speak on a specific agenda item at a Thursday meeting (A session)
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II. B. 3. Council Committees/Legislative Process
As outlined in the mayor/council section, the city council votes on policy in San Antonio, but where does policy come from? How do council members decide what policy is best for the city?
Policy recommendations can start with council members, the city manager, the mayor, council committees, citizen boards and commissions, task forces, or through policy initiatives created by citizens and political groups.
For a policy recommendation to be considered, it must be part of the official agenda of a city council meeting. If considered, the policy is voted on and needs to receive a majority vote in order to be passed.
When weighing the merits of a policy, city council will often turn to council committees. Council committees are advisory bodies made up of council members that recommend and review policies within their areas of expertise to aid the city council in making informed decisions. Some of San Antonio’s council committees are the Culture and Neighborhood Services Committee, the Audit and Accountability Committee, and the Community Health and Equity Committee.
Similarly, task forces are advisory bodies that are formed to conduct research and utilize their inherent expertise to build policy recommendations for the city council. Task forces composed of issue stakeholders are typically created by the mayor to look into specific issues. Usually, these task forces are staffed by experts on the topic being studied. Once their research is completed and their recommendations are made to the city council, they are disbanded.
II. C. City Manager
Just like businesses, the city of San Antonio has a CEO, the city manager. Appointed by the city council and the mayor, the city manager oversees the day-to-day operations of San Antonio in an effort to keep the city running smoothly.
The city manager handles things like the hiring and firing of government staff, preparing the city’s budget for the city council’s approval, negotiating contracts on behalf of the city, and carrying out the policies put in place by the city council. As the CEO and administrative head of the city, the city manager is responsible for the administration of all city services, and city personnel report to the city manager the way employees in a business would report to management.
The city council and mayor monitor the performance of the city manager. A 2018 city charter amendment limited the city manager’s time in the job to eight years.
II. D. Citizen Boards and Commissions
Citizen advisory boards and commissions offer an accessible way for community members to participate in local government. These bodies allow citizens to engage in the democratic process and provide insight on important issues to elected officials from a San Antonian’s perspective.
Many of these positions are filled on a volunteer basis, and board and commission members advise the city council on what policies to pass in the best interest of members of the San Antonio community.
Some of the activities of the boards include reviewing data and reports, evaluating the use of funding, performing research, and conducting public hearings. The boards then use this information to make recommendations to the legislative body, the city council, about what decisions to make for the public’s benefit.
In San Antonio, there are approximately 90 local boards and commissions that address a wide range of issues affecting daily life for those in our city. Some examples include the Neighborhood Improvement Advisory Committee, the San Antonio Arts Commission, and the San Antonio Youth Commission. Most boards hold monthly meetings, although that frequency varies.
II. E. Development and Zoning
Have you ever wondered why houses are clustered together? Or all of your favorite restaurants are on one street? Both of these examples are products of planning and zoning. San Antonio, like almost all other cities in the United States, uses zoning to designate what kinds of buildings—such as residential, industrial, and commercial—can be built in particular areas of the city.
Zoning goes hand in hand with city development, which is spearheaded by the City of San Antonio’s Development Services Department. It partners with other departments in the city to help stimulate the city’s growth through development projects.
As the city develops, new projects are reviewed by the Zoning Commission and the Historic and Design Review Commission (HDRC). The Zoning Commission conducts public hearings regarding changes to zoning regulations at 1 p.m. on the first and third Tuesday of every month.
The HDRC deals with any exterior changes to properties located in San Antonio’s historic districts, which includes the River Improvement Overlay (RIO) districts, Viewshed Protected districts, publicly owned spaces such as libraries and parks, and construction projects within the Downtown Business District.
Local citizens are able to attend HDRC meetings. If you wish to speak for or against an agenda item, you will be allotted 3 minutes of speaking time to voice your opinion.
III. Bexar County
III. A. County Judge
The county judge is one of the most important elected officials at the county level. With emergency declaration responsibilities and an oversight role on the county’s governing body, the county judge functions similarly to the mayor, but for county government rather than city government.
In Bexar County, the county judge is the presiding officer of the commissioners court and is a voting member. In addition to the county judge, there are four commissioners on the commissioners court, each representing one-quarter of the population of Bexar County. Although judge and court are in their respective titles, it’s important to note that neither entity has a judicial role.
Together, the county judge and the commissioners court set the county tax rate, build and maintain county roads, build and maintain county buildings, appoint county officials, oversee the county court system and jail, and establish voting precincts.
In accordance with the Texas Open Meetings Act, the county judge is also responsible for ensuring that government meetings are open to the public.
To voice your opinions to the county government, you can attend commissioners court meetings, held in the Commissioners Courtroom located in the Bexar County Courthouse at 100 Dolorosa.
III. B. Sheriff’s Office
The sheriff of Bexar County is the chief law enforcement officer responsible for keeping the county safe. Along with the responsibility of keeping the peace, the sheriff’s office operates and manages the Bexar County jail, honors court rulings, provides security for the county and district courts and judges, and enforces the criminal laws of the state of Texas. The sheriff is elected to office every four years and must be a resident of the county.
Did you know that the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office is the 11th largest sheriff’s office in the country, with an operating budget of $135 million and close to 2,000 employees?
The laws of the unincorporated areas of Bexar County are enforced by the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office. Unincorporated areas are populated places within the county that are not governed by a municipality. The incorporated areas of the county have their own law enforcement agencies, like the San Antonio Police Department here in our city.
You can submit complaints and comments to help improve the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office by visiting bexar.org/753/get-involved.
You can also report crimes and learn more about neighborhood watch programs in your area on the same website.
III. C. District Attorney
The district attorney is an elected official who represents the state of Texas in all criminal cases brought in the county. The prosecutors who work in the district attorney’s office are responsible for holding criminals accountable for their actions by prosecuting criminal cases.
Cases submitted by local law enforcement are reviewed by the district attorney—mostly felony cases, but sometimes misdemeanors—to determine whether or not there is enough evidence to successfully prosecute the case. If there’s enough evidence to begin prosecution, the DA will recommend a course of action on how to move forward with a case.
You can contact the district attorney by visiting bexar.org/1384/District-Attorney.
Although its primary focus is criminal prosecution, the district attorney’s office also serves as legal counsel to Bexar County, its employees, and its representatives. As an elected official, the district attorney serves four-year terms.
IV. School Boards
Everything’s bigger in Texas, including its education system. Texas uses a structure of independent school districts, which means school systems operate independently from municipal and county governments. Although other states have independent school districts, Texas has the most independent school districts of any state, by far.
Independent school district boundaries are their own taxable area, and each district has its own school board with elected members who work to determine educational policies in their district. In Bexar County, there are 19 independent school districts.
If you want to know what’s going on with your local school district, school board meetings are open to the public. Meeting schedules, agendas, and minutes are posted on the districts’ respective websites in accordance with the Texas Open Meetings Act.
For education after high school, San Antonio has the Alamo Colleges District, founded in 1945. The Alamo Colleges District has five community colleges in its network, providing public, post-secondary education that offers a variety of courses and two-year degrees for San Antonians. Property owners in Bexar County pay a tax to the Alamo Colleges District.
Today, you’ve probably had a glass of water and turned on a light, but you may not have thought about how those two tasks are actually possible. We’re so used to having water and electricity, we never think twice about the public utilities that provide water and power for our homes.
As a San Antonian, you’ve likely heard of SAWS, the San Antonio Water System. Mainly sourcing water from the Edwards Aquifer, SAWS provides water services to nearly 2 million people in Bexar County and the surrounding areas.
The San Antonio Water System board of trustees oversees SAWS, and the board is made up of six members appointed by the city council and the mayor. Board meetings are open to the public. You can learn more about the meetings and how to participate at saws.org/about-saws/our-board/.
If you want to attend a meeting, you can find information on upcoming agendas at cpsenergy.com/boardmeetings
In addition to water, we need power. San Antonio gets its electricity through CPS Energy. Did you know that CPS Energy is the nation’s largest municipally owned energy company?
Like SAWS, CPS Energy is run by a board of trustees, consisting of four citizens each representing one of the geographical quadrants of San Antonio, as well as the mayor of San Antonio as a fifth member.
Like citizens in all cities across the United States, residents of San Antonio have to pay taxes. In addition to federal taxes, San Antonians have to pay both state and local taxes. These taxes are used to fund many of the municipal services that keep our city functional, such as transportation, emergency services, and sewage.
When it comes to local taxes, there are two forms of taxation that affect most citizens: sales tax and property tax.
In San Antonio, the sales tax rate is 8.25%, which is a combination of the state tax rate of 6.25% and the local tax rate of 2%. The local tax pays for San Antonio-focused initiatives.
In conjunction with sales tax, property tax plays an important role in funding local services like police and fire departments, upkeep of highways and roads, community health services, and public schools.
Every year, each taxing jurisdiction adopts a property tax rate in line with the annual budget they estimate they’ll need to provide necessary public services. By law, the Bexar County Appraisal District informs property owners of the assessed value of their property and allows homeowners and residents to contest their valuation. When the appraisal district sends you a notice of appraised value, a protest form will be included.
Property taxes and other taxes are collected by the Bexar County Tax Assessor-Collector, an official elected to four-year terms.
VII. Putting a Proposition on the Ballot
What exactly are the propositions you see on local ballots, and where do they come from? To answer these questions, let’s start with the definition of proposition: a proposed piece of legislation that a portion of a city’s population wishes to see enacted.
Politicians and citizens in San Antonio are able to organize petitions that can eventually turn into propositions on election ballots if they receive enough signatures. To get a proposition or ordinance on the ballot, its petition typically has to have signatures from 10% of the electors that were eligible to vote at the time of the last municipal election. Some laws require a higher threshold of signatures. Council members, the mayor, the city manager, council committees, and others can also propose propositions, subject to a city council vote.
Once signatures are added to a petition, they are valid for 180 days. On the day that the petition is submitted to the City Clerk, the signatures are preserved.
VIII. Requesting Access to Public Information
In theory, we may know that we have access to information from public entities, but how do we take a peek at that information? And what information is available?
The Public Information Act (PIA) was put into place to allow citizens to examine and copy information of governmental bodies at the state, county, and local level. Some examples of public information you can access include land records, marriage licenses, police records, and assumed business names/DBAs.
Not all governmental information, of course, is open to the public. Security plans, home addresses and family information, and judicial calendars are a few examples of information that’s not accessible under the PIA.
Under the PIA, governmental bodies are to release information within 10 days, unless further steps are needed. Before submitting a request, you can check the government’s database for public information that’s already been released, which could save you some time and hassle.
It’s important to note that the PIA prevents governmental agencies from asking citizens why they made such a request, but it gives them the power to withhold information under certain circumstances.
You can submit a request for information through the state, county, or local government, either by mail, fax, email, in person, or on their respective websites.
Now that you’ve finished this booklet, you should have a better understanding of why local government matters, how it works, how it affects your daily life, and, most importantly, how to get involved. You can join a citizen board, sign a petition for a proposition, or attend a city council meeting to address issues that you are passionate about. Your level of engagement is up to you.
Although our local government is not perfect, it is a system that strives to allow community involvement and for peoples’ voices to directly affect the policies that are enacted in San Antonio. After all, the local government and the people of this community should have one common goal: to make San Antonio, the city we call home, an even better place to live.
There are several other entities that residents can engage with, including:
- public school districts
- higher education (such as university or community college boards)
- other municipalities within Bexar County such as Leon Valley, Balcones Heights, Olmos Park, Alamo Heights, and Terrell Hills)
- San Antonio River Authority
- Alamo Area Council of Governments
- VIA Metropolitan Transit
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