A voter-mandated legal restriction placed on Arlington’s mayoral seat three years ago comes into play Saturday when a new mayor gets elected.
Mayor Jeff Williams could not seek re-election to add to his six years in the office because of term limits, which he publicly opposed.
“It’s certain if (Williams) would have run again, he would have won,” said Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley, who added that he wishes Williams could have stayed longer.
Instead, the June 5 runoff election will decide who will lead the city as its next mayor. The choice is between candidates Michael Glaspie or Jim Ross, but whoever wins will have no time to waste to develop his vision.
Williams first became mayor in 2015 and received 58% of total votes cast in the 2019 mayoral election. But, in a 2018 special election, 62% of Arlington residents favored amending the city charter to impose term limits. The measure retroactively limited City Council members and the mayor to a maximum of three two-year terms.
Proponents of Arlington’s term limits say the purpose of the restriction is working as planned: to curtail the powers of one individual over a lengthy period.
“City Hall has lost occasionally,” said Thomas Marshall, a political science professor at the University of Texas at Arlington. “Clearly, City Hall lost on the term limits referendum and never could quite get around it.”
Limitations in challenges
Arlington’s term limit restriction also bans former mayors or council members to run for the same office again after completing three terms. Coupled with the retroactive clause, it makes Arlington’s measure one of the strictest term limit restrictions in Texas.
Most cities in Tarrant County – like Flower Mound, Mansfield, Euless, Grapevine and Southlake – count three years as one term for their council and mayor positions, which enables the cities to hold elections less often. The term length for Arlington, as well as Fort Worth, is two years. However, Fort Worth does not have a term limit.
Dallas mayors can consecutively serve for eight years. A term-limited mayor in Dallas can run for office again after a four-year cooling-off period.
Houston, San Antonio, El Paso and Laredo are the other large Texas cities to enact term limits similar to Arlington’s.
“The only purpose for term limits is to say that the citizens aren’t smart enough to recognize when there needs to be a change,” Whitley said. “I think people are comfortable with Jeff (Williams). And if they weren’t or if he did something that they didn’t approve of, they have an opportunity to elect someone else.”
Both Arlington mayoral candidates say they support term limits, to a degree.
“Term limit allows us to bring in new ideas, new blood. But there’s something to be said for having consistency,” said Glaspie, a former council member term-limited in 2019. “Be careful, though, because consistency can turn into complacency. And we don’t need to be complacent.”
His opponent, Ross, also agreed with the need for term limits, but he is more concerned about maintaining stability in leadership roles, he said in an interview.
“We need to make sure that when we have consecutive mayors, we don’t want to get people in who make such drastic changes in policies in what direction the city is going that it puts the city behind years, if not decades, in its progress.”
Whitley noted larger projects and longer-term visions require efficiency that can only be gained through long-range planning.
“And it’s hard to long-range plan when you’ve only got six years,” he said. “It also sometimes will scare off your major developments because your developers are saying, ‘OK, I could get something set up and get it beginning, but I might not be able to complete it without a turnover in the council.’ You never know what a new council member may bring to the equation.”
Arlington partnered with Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones to bring the NFL franchise to Arlington in 2004, a project championed by former Mayor Robert Cluck in his 12-year-long tenure. Other staple Arlington projects like Texas Rangers, Six Flags and the General Motors’ manufacturing plant came to Arlington during the longest-serving mayor Tom Vandergriff‘s term, which lasted from 1951 to 1977.
Marshall, the political science professor, noted most political leaders, city mayors included, try to make their big moves within their first couple of years, when they are under public scrutiny the most.
“You want to run for mayor and you’re credible and you see this next step in your career – it’s going to be a six-year career,” Marshall said. “Six years is a long time, you know. Arlington mayors don’t usually stay much longer than that.”
Since 1876 when the City of Arlington was founded, only five mayors out of 38 have served terms 10 years or longer.
Mayor Williams was instrumental in gathering public support to build the $1.2 billion Globe Life Field, keeping the Texas Rangers in Arlington until at least the 2053 season.
He campaigned to get Arlington voters behind a bond election in 2016 to move the project further.
It takes an experienced and well-connected leader to carry on big projects like Globe Life Field, Whitley said.
“That’s just ridiculous. Citizens need to be able to make decisions but not be forced to lose a good leader because of some rule that sounds great until you actually sit down and implement it. And you realize that it takes a while to get into the stream, the cycle of what it takes.”
The limited number of years means the new mayor would have to make quick decisions and prioritize focus, Glaspie said. He is not worried it affects his decision-making ability, he said.
Six years is not sufficient enough time for any mayor to accomplish bigger goals, Ross said.
“Arlington voters have voted for term limits for a reason, and that is they want some type of term limits there,” Ross said. “Now, I don’t believe we necessarily have the best term limits in place. But these are the ones that the voters gave us.”
The Arlington City Council approved the formation of a Term Limits Advisory Committee and appointed members to it in July 2020. The committee was formed to review the term lengths and term limits provisions and “work to formulate recommendations on possible changes to such provisions,” according to the city.
The committee had recommended extending the term lengths from six years to eight years and eliminating the lifetime ban after being term-limited.
The recommendations have not yet made it to a ballot for residents to vote on, as previously planned. While simmered down, conversations surrounding term limits still lingers inside City Council.
Both mayoral candidates said they would reconsider the issue and work on changing the term limit requirements if voters demand it.
Glaspie said he’d be in favor of revisiting term limits.
Ross said: “We need a leadership that could be here, not necessarily indefinitely, but long enough to make an impact.”
Marshall called the mayoral candidates “quasi incumbents,” both of whom are locally well-known and experienced in civic issues. They should already have a sense of what Arlington residents care about, he said.
“The movement to undo term limits just sort of fizzled away,” Marshall said. “I don’t see any likelihood Arlington will eliminate term limits. They’re just too popular. If Jeff Williams was running for re-election, you know that we wouldn’t have a very interesting election and we probably wouldn’t be in a runoff.”
Runoff Election is Saturday, June 5, 2021. Polling locations will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Arlington voters may vote at any polling location in Tarrant County on the Runoff Election Day.