Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal
For 90 minutes Thursday, two mayoral candidates engaged in heated debate with an empty chair.
That’s because incumbent Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry decided not to attend the Mayoral Public Safety Forum hosted by the police and firefighter unions. The mayor called it a “made-for-media publicity stunt” and opted instead to attend the ceremonial groundbreaking of the new Interstate 25/Paseo del Norte reconstruction project.
Candidates Paul Heh and Pete Dinelli, however, showed up and largely agreed on topics posed to them by elected state and national representatives and retired police and fire department officials.
“As your mayor, I would never … disrespect you like the mayor has disrespected you today,” Dinelli told the crowd of about 100 union members and others at the Carpenters Union Training Center. “That empty chair is a reflection of the empty leadership the city has had for the last three and a half years.”
Heh also took the mayor to task during the debate, which addressed topics including the mayor’s role in appointing department chiefs, collective bargaining rights, federal automatic budget cuts known as “sequestration” and privatization of public services.
In response to a question about whether the City Council should have a role in the appointment of public safety chiefs, Dinelli and Heh said they thought appointment of the fire and police chiefs should be left to the mayor.
Heh said Berry chooses not to show up at debates where the crowd might disagree with him.
“Every forum I show up at, the mayor doesn’t attend unless it’s held by his so-called friends,” Heh said.
The candidates have had three forums in recent weeks, including one held by the local commercial real-estate development association. All three candidates showed up for those events.
Berry said by phone Thursday that he didn’t think the debate’s location and timing allowed for a productive debate, since it was held in a union headquarters an hour before the groundbreaking. He said the carpenters union is behind the large, red “Shame on You” signs held during labor strikes at small businesses, so the venue was inappropriate for a balanced debate on public safety.
“That doesn’t mean we can’t have really meaningful discussions about public safety. I’m more than willing to have those conversations,” Berry said. “… My door has been, and continues to be open to the APOA leadership” and other unions, he said.
The union and the mayor have been at a negotiation impasse during his tenure over raises and the use of tax dollars on union business, and the number of officers has dropped in the meantime. A union-funded committee uploaded a video to YouTube on Wednesday criticizing the mayor for the decrease in officers, especially in specialized units.
Berry said he thinks the video was a waste of time and resources that could have been better spent on finding a solution to the three-and-a-half-year negotiation impasse.
As for his opponents, the mayor said they haven’t posed any “big ideas” in the last three debates they’ve had. The candidates are scheduled for three more TV debates before the Oct. 8 election.
“Quite frankly, I haven’t seen my opponents bring any big ideas,” he said. “I’ve only heard them tear down the police department and the city.”