ATTLEBORO — Incumbent Mayor Paul Heroux and challenger Todd McGhee faced off Thursday night in what turned out to be a low-key debate.

It was so peaceful that at one point moderator Peter Gay was prompted to comment: “If only the presidential debates had gone this well.”

A crowd of about 50 jammed into the council chambers at City Hall to hear what the candidates had to say and even they, who in past debates were at times unruly, obeyed the “no applause” rule until the end.

All were fully masked which perhaps reminded them to be quiet.

Adding to the civility, a seventh grade student at Wamsutta Middle School, Shane Mukasa, who was one of the panelists chosen to ask questions, challenged each candidate to say something nice about the other, and each complied.

Heroux praised McGhee as a man devoted to his family and a person of “character and integrity.”

McGhee praised Heroux, who has a number of advanced degrees, for not abandoning his home city, but returning to lead it and “make it a better place.”

Neither candidate took the other to task in any other way than politely.

In his opening statement Heroux characterized the job of mayor as “the most rewarding of his life,” and repeated his pledge to serve only one more term.

He said he decided on the three-term limit because residents probably have “mayor for life fatigue,” noting his two predecessors Kevin Dumas served seven terms and Judy Robbins served six.

But he made a point that there’s no need for change right now.

“Things in the city are going well,” he said. “We have a balanced budget without layoffs and no one in City Hall caught COVID.”

McGhee made his pitch for change more in his closing statement.

Apparently some have accused him of being an “activist” and he made it clear he’s not.

“I have no interest in that,” he said. “I’m a very public figure.”

He said anyone can “Google” him and view his entire career which includes more than 20 years as a state police trooper and another decade in business.

McGhee also made it clear that the teaching of critical race theory, which has become a heated and divisive issue in some parts of the country, does not belong in Attleboro schools.

He said his candidacy is “a bold choice for change.”

And some of what that means for residents is transparency, a new two-tiered tax work-off program, funding above the “net school spending” minimum every year, hiring more teachers and adjustment counselors, treating the rat infestation problem in the city as a “public health emergency,” coming up with a plan for the use of Highland Park, revamping the city’s website and listening to residents on “quality of life issues.”

Heroux countered that many of McGhee’s proposals such as attacking the problem of an aging water main system are projects that are already underway.

“A lot of what you are campaigning on we are already doing,” Heroux said. “The city is in really good shape.”

But McGhee said that he is sensing in talks with residents as he campaigned door to door that people want to see more than projects downtown.

“Having the opportunity to get out and talk to residents about projects versus quality of life issues I believe people are ready for quality of life issues,” he said.

There is more that can be done there, such as more community events that bring people together, he said.

He questioned Heroux on why it has taken so long to provide the performance venue promised for Highland Park back in 2019.

Heroux responded that dealing with the coronavirus pandemic slowed that process as well as an effort to find a funding source.

He said the city has found a designer and a funding source and the project should pick up speed.

One question asked by panelist Mike Kirby concerned a proposal in Brookline to ban fossil fuels used to heat homes.

Heroux said he wouldn’t propose that. There are other ways to combat climate change such as plans to install solar panels over all city owned parking lots, he said.

Meanwhile McGhee who has come out against Heroux’s proposal to impose a 75-foot no disturb zone as part of the city’s wetland protection ordinance, said he’s hearing that that is a major concern among residents who complained to him that “the government keeps taking.”

Heroux argued that much misinformation has been spread about the proposal of the 75-foot zone, which he and city planners argue will help preserve water quality for future generations.

He said the proposal is “loaded with exemptions.”

Panelist Bill Gouveia asked each candidate to tell of a mistake they’ve made in the past and what they did about it.

McGhee didn’t cite a particular mistake but he said it’s important “to own it and step up.”

Heroux acknowledged that when he came to office he “hated” then budget director Barry LaCasse.

“I wanted to get rid of him, but then I started working with him and he was awesome,” Heroux said. “He was a great public servant.”

Crystal Brown-Battle asked what diversity and inclusion meant to each candidate.

Heroux said he focuses on creating a diverse workforce for the city.

“I’ve hired male and female, young and old,” he said. “I’ve passed over white males because I’m looking for diversity.”

McGhee, who’s black, said diversity goes beyond just race.

He said he and others were hired under a program that focused on bringing diversity to the state police. However that didn’t always work out because there was less of a focus on the ability of the individual.

“I worked with people who never should have been in the department,” he said.

Meanwhile, McGhee challenged Heroux on a rumor he heard that he tried to get Gouveia removed from the panel for the debate.

Heroux admitted it was true.

“Bill Gouveia and I did not have a great relationship,” he said. “I just wanted a fair shot.”

But Heroux, true to the tenor of the night, said everything turned out alright.

“I’m pleased with the way the questions went,” he said.

George W. Rhodes can be reached at 508-236-0432.

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