If past trends hold up, Lake Highlands residents will play a significant role in the outcome of the strong-mayor election in May. Northeast Dallas voters may not always agree on the issues, but they usually turn out in high numbers on Election Day.

But how will we make up our mind about this hotly contested issue? Already, there are no fewer than three organized campaigns (two “for,” one “against”) trying to woo voters.

As we get closer to the election, we can probably expect mailboxes full of red-white-and-blue fliers from both sides warning of corruption if the strong mayor initiative passes – and political inertia if it doesn’t.

But unraveling the specifics of the ballot proposal – specifically, what structural changes it would actually produce at City Hall – can be a tiresome undertaking. Most voters would probably be hard-pressed to describe the organizational flow chart right now, much less how the proposal would change the status quo.

That increases the likelihood that the election will become a referendum on City Hall, not the form of government. No wonder many of the current City Council members have joined the opposition. They’re worried. Right or wrong, people are frustrated with City Hall.

Pick an issue, any issue: Crime rates are stubbornly high. The Cowboys are going to Arlington. Unchecked residential development is throwing off older home valuations in Lakewood, Preston Hollow and Oak Lawn. Middle-class homeowners in neighborhoods such as Lake Highlands are caught in the squeeze. Whatever the issue, it’s easy to blame City Hall – and show that frustration with a protest vote to overhaul the system.

But before I send a message to City Hall with my vote, I can’t help wondering whose agenda is really at work here. Erstwhile ex-council candidate Beth Ann Blackwood didn’t get more than 20,000 petition signatures by herself; paid workers circulated the petitions.

Call me old-fashioned, but I like the kind of referendum that gets on the ballot because real people took to the streets to make it happen. We’ve seen that happen from time to time, such as when police and fire fighters put collective bargaining on the ballot. (The measure always fails, but police and fire personnel actually circulate petitions themselves.)

The strong mayor proposal on the May ballot is not the product of a grassroots effort. It’s a bought-and-paid-for campaign primarily funded, at least initially, by a handful of businessmen, several of whom do not even live in Dallas.

Three of them – a real estate executive, a manufacturing executive and an oilman – live in the Park Cities. They and two other contributors pretty much bank-rolled the initial campaign. The question that’s never been answered to my satisfaction is: Why?

True, some of them were already familiar names in political circles. Billionaire Harold Simmons and oilman Albert Huddleston were large contributors to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth campaign, which dogged Sen. John Kerry’s failed presidential bid. Seems to me like a ballot measure on city government would be small potatoes after that.

Maybe Mr. Simmons and the rest think they know who the next mayor will be, if the strong mayor plan passes. I wish I did. It would be easier to decide how to vote.