By Leopold Knopp, Contributing Writer
Senate Bill 2, a property tax reform act that was signed into law June 12, could force Lewisville Mayor Rudy Durham to choose between the mayorship and his job.
The law contains a section that prohibits county appraisal districts from employing officers or employees of taxing entities who participate in that appraisal district. This means that the Denton County Appraisal District would not be allowed to employ any elected official or employee for the City of Lewisville, which is almost entirely within Denton County.
This means that Durham, the two-term mayor who has been on Lewisville’s City Council since 1994, would have to choose between the mayorship and his job as the county’s chief appraiser.
Durham has said several times that he would choose his job over the mayorship, and confirmed that he intends to step down if the law goes into effect Jan. 1. However, he said things are still up in the air. Lewisville City Council person TJ Gilmore said city attorney Lizbeth Plaster has requested additional, closed-door discussion on the issue.
If Durham steps down, city spokesperson James Kunke said Lewisville would hold a special election to fill the final year of Durham’s three-year term in May, in conjunction with its regularly scheduled election for two City Council seats. A full, three-year mayoral term will be up for grabs in 2021.
This course would leave Lewisville without a mayor for four months, which Kunke said would not be a problem. The mayor’s official duties are to run City Council meetings — he does not vote on agenda items. Council members Brandon Jones and Bob Troyer are the current mayor pro tem and deputy mayor pro tem, respectively, whose official duty it is to preside over meetings in the mayor’s absence. The mayor’s ceremonial, public-facing duties were already often filled by other council members.
This law has been a long time coming. It has been at least a topic of discussion since 2017, when conservative political action committee Empower Texans, which seems to have rebranded itself as Texas Scorecard, took swipes at Lewisville public officials and singled Durham out as having a conflict of interest. The possibility of Durham resigning was a question during his 2018 reelection campaign.
The clause, Section 17 in the final bill, was added to the property tax reform act as an amendment. A similar bill, Senate Bill 1146, which never made it out of committee, seemed to target Durham much more specifically. S.B. 1146 would have only applied in counties with more than 20,000 residents, and instead of the final bill’s broader language that prevents appraisal districts from employing anyone involved with local governments in any capacity, S.B. 1146 would have only prevented elected officials within the appraisal district, not employees, from serving specifically as chief appraiser or as an assessor.
Though Durham serving as both the county’s chief appraiser and the mayor of a city within that county has been described as a conflict of interest, there is little room for him to abuse his unique position. As chief appraiser, he does not assess property values directly, and as mayor, he does not cast a vote on City Council agenda items except in cases of a tie. The only conceivable way Durham could vote would be if one of Lewisville’s five City Council members were absent for a meeting, which they almost never are, and if the other four members were deadlocked, which would be even more unusual — like many local governments, Lewisville’s City Council is almost always in agreement on agenda items by the time they come to a vote. Durham could only vote on property tax rates if both of these rarities happened at a meeting when the city is passing its budget, which is one meeting per year.
In its March 18 meeting, Lewisville City Council passed a resolution specifically opposing S.B. 1146, which describes the bill as punitive in nature and based on a fundamental misunderstanding of both the chief appraiser and mayor positions.
Having served on City Council since 1994, Durham remains a popular figure in Lewisville. In 2018, he earned 57% of the vote for mayor against two other candidates.
Lewisville’s next City Council meeting is scheduled for July 1.