Here’s why local government matters

Tommy Wan, Columnist

As City Hall gleams luminously just south of Austin’s downtown, elected officials and their staffers make powerful decisions with impacts that trickle down to residents. 

From ensuring running water to guiding economic development, the City of Austin is responsible for providing core services and leading development priorities.

These major decisions are made daily, impacting the livelihood of UT students and beyond. As such, students should be informed about local governance in Austin — a central source of core services, issue-based advocacy and quality of life.

Local government consists of many departments, officials and entities. In each, local governance is grounded in providing vital, everyday services for the people. For instance, the City of Austin manages services including water infrastructure, trash collecting, schools, elections, economic development, transportation and public safety.

In city governance, there are ten city council members and one mayor. Officially, the body is non-partisan and officials are elected to four-year terms.

 Many students are curious about the city’s role but are not involved. Arjun Bala-Mehta, an electrical and computer engineering freshman, explained his perspective. 

“I think the issue (is) how much people even know about (local government) in the first place,” Bala-Mehta said. “A lot of people like myself … will not even have it on their mind to get involved.”

There’s also a sense of accountability, an essential element in ensuring all voices are heard. 

 “Local government is closest to the people,” said Steven Pedigo, a professor of practice and the director of the LBJ Urban Lab. “It’s the most highly accountable (form) of governance … (Local government deals with) fire, safety, policing, water, energy, those types of things. The growth trajectory of a community is … really important.”

With local governance, there are common misconceptions. For instance, Austin retains a council-manager type of government, in which a city manager prepares the city budget, manages staff, and guides the long-term vision of city operations and policies. In other major cities, the mayor is responsible for these tasks.

“It’s (important) to have someone who builds that consensus among all policymakers,” Pedigo said. “That mayor role becomes super important (in) being able to be an agenda setter and a coalition builder.”

Civic participation in local government is possible, even as a student.

Legislation is difficult to change, but civic engagement in local government in Austin is a start. One protest will generate short-term attention, but dedicated local political involvement creates sustained change. Voting, attending Austin City Council meetings, testifying at the Texas State Capitol, registering voters on Speedway, calling representatives and researching political candidates for elections are all crucial methods in upholding democracy.

“There’s a lot of local nonprofits and community-based organizations that are advocating (for specific issues),” Pedigo said. “That’s a great way to plug in on these issue areas, making you a more informed local community member.”

As state and national politics dominate the media, we often forget about where fundamental decisions are made. From your walk to classes to voting in secure elections, students are dependent on city services. Local decisions affect how you commute, the taxes you pay and the parks you play in. 

You’re not just a student, but a resident of Austin. Currently, District Nine, which represents UT, is a contested seat in the midterm election.

Your vote is vital — you have a say in the ultimate vision of local governance.

Wan is an aerospace engineering and Plan II freshman from Houston, Texas.