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Mayoral candidates clash over APD

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Challengers say Berry is blind to department’s woes

Albuquerque’s mayoral candidates tackled abortion, budgeting and the police force before a television audience Sunday morning.

Incumbent Richard Berry offered a positive, optimistic view of where the city stands in comparison to four years ago. He described Albuquerque as a “world-class city” with a police department it can be proud of.

His challengers, Pete Dinelli and Paul Heh, took turns accusing Berry of ignoring problems in APD and blaming him for the city’s slow recovery from the Great Recession.

“The fact is, a true leader doesn’t bury his head in the sand,” Dinelli said.

Of the mayor, Heh said, “I don’t know what fancy land he’s living in.”

Berry, for his part, cited crime statistics reported to the FBI to back up his claim that Albuquerque has “the safest neighborhoods in the last 20 years.” The community is on the right track, he said, and his opponents lack ideas to move the city forward.

“The difference between my opponents and myself is, you can say you love the city and all those things, but if you don’t believe in your city, you shouldn’t be the mayor of the city of Albuquerque,” Berry said.

Berry, a Republican, is seeking re-election to a second term. He’s a former general contractor who served in the state House.

Dinelli, a Democrat, is a former deputy city attorney. Heh, a Republican, is a retired police sergeant.

Election Day is Oct. 8. If no candidate gets at least 50 percent of the vote, the top two will compete in a runoff Nov. 19.

Sunday’s debate was televised by KOB and moderated by anchors Nicole Brady and Tom Joles.

The candidates clashed repeatedly over the Albuquerque Police Department, which has faced criticism over the number of people shot and killed by officers. The U.S. Department of Justice is also investigating whether APD has a pattern or practice of using excessive force.

Berry stuck to his usual defense of APD. He said he has raised hiring standards and carried out reforms based on suggestions from a think tank. The number of shootings has fallen, he said.

The mayor repeatedly noted that the city’s crime rates in the last three years are the lowest in about 20 years.

“We’ll let my opponents tear down the police department, but I’ll build them up,” Berry said.

Dinelli said the police force is understaffed and response times are up.

“Mr. Berry, frankly, I don’t understand what department you’re describing,” he said. “The Albuquerque Police Department is in complete meltdown.”

Heh said the city is awash in drugs, among other problems.

“Do any of you feel safe when you leave your house?” he asked.

Berry’s contention that the crime rate is lower now than when he took office is true, according to numbers reported to the FBI. The crime rate in Albuquerque has been falling throughout every mayoral administration since the mid-1990s.

Dinelli’s contention that response times are up is supported by data reported by the city for “Priority 1″ calls in fiscal years 2010-12. The police force has about 920 officers, though 1,100 are authorized in the budget.

The debate offered candidates a chance to question each other, and it sparked some lively back and forth.

Berry noted that he had to trim city spending when he took office amid the tough economy. The city reduced employee pay to help avoid a $60 million budget shortfall, and there were no tax increases or layoffs, he said.

How would Dinelli and Heh have handled the budget? Berry asked.

Neither offered a specific answer. Dinelli said Berry was taking credit for a budget approved by city councilors, and Heh said boosting the economy is the best way to trim budget deficits.

Berry pointed out it’s the mayor who crafts the first budget proposal, which is then sent to city councilors. They, in turn, make changes and send it back to the mayor.

For his question, Heh asked whether the other candidates support Obamacare. Dinelli said he did. Berry didn’t answer one way or another and said the question had “very little to do with being mayor of the city of Albuquerque.”

Heh demanded a “yes or no” answer, but moderators said time was up and moved on.

Dinelli asked the other candidates why they’ve said they would vote for the proposed ordinance that would ban abortions in Albuquerque after 20 weeks of pregnancy, unless the pregnant women’s life is in danger. He said it had no exception for cases of rape and incest.

Berry tried to distance himself from the ordinance by noting that it was proposed by outside groups that gathered petition signatures to get it on the ballot.

“Let’s not use this to tear our city apart,” he said. “Just vote your conscience.”

Heh said he supports abortion in cases of rape and incest but that “I’m against late term abortion if that fetus can feel any pain.”

Dinelli is opposed to the measure, which goes before voters Nov. 19.

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