By DAVID SKOLNICK
In their first debate, the three Democratic candidates for mayor were not only cordial to one another, but one spoke in defense of an opponent.
The candidates — council President Jamael Tito Brown, John McNally IV, a former Mahoning County commissioner and city law director, and Matthew Smith, a minister — responded to questions from a three-member media panel for about 90 minutes Thursday at a debate sponsored by the 7th Ward Citizens Coalition.
Bertram de Souza, an editorial writer and columnist for The Vindicator, asked McNally if he would quit the race if charges of political corruption, dismissed in July 2011, were refiled. McNally, who has said he is innocent of the charges related to his opposition to the county’s purchase of Oakhill Renaissance Center, said he wouldn’t.
The charges were dropped at the request of special prosecutors who said their inability to obtain tape recordings held by the FBI supposedly related to the case made it impossible to proceed.
Brown said he wanted the government to say McNally is no longer under investigation so that issue can be put to rest and the candidates can talk about the key issues in the race leading up to the May 7 primary.
The three candidates agree that job creation and retention in the city is a top priority. The debate was at Mill Creek MetroParks’ D.D. and Velma Davis Education & Visitor Center at Fellows Riverside Gardens.
With a shrinking economy, Brown said as mayor he would work with surrounding communities on joint economic development districts and zones to develop job sites that would allow the sharing of income tax.
A key responsibility of a mayor is to create an environment that makes the city business-friendly, McNally said.
Smith, who struggled throughout the debate, said his main goal is to create jobs.
He repeatedly said “OK” while attempting to respond to questions. Several times, his responses had little to nothing to do with the questions posed to him.
At one point, Smith said he had to “pass” on answering a question “because I’m really nervous.”
The candidates discussed making city government more efficient, regionalization, the importance of the mayor being independent and not beholden to special-interest groups or campaign donors, the city’s education system, reducing crime and fracking.
The candidates were asked about lowering the city’s 2.75 percent income tax, the third highest in the state.
McNally said every mayor would like to say yes, but he doesn’t see that as “realistic.”
He added that the tax hasn’t “hampered downtown development,” and if elected, he would establish a mayor’s committee to look at the income tax issue.
Collaboration with other communities would benefit the bottom line of not only the city but other areas, said Brown, who stopped short of giving a commitment on reducing the income tax.
Smith said, “It’s good to have taxes.”
The next mayor, Brown said, “will shape the vision and direction the city is going on. We need to be a city that continues to move forward. We can’t go back. We cannot afford to go back. Here’s what you get from Tito Brown as mayor: you get someone who’s going to do the right thing. I may not always get it right, but I’m always going to do the right thing.”
This mayoral race “is very crucial for the future for the city of Youngstown for the next six, eight years,” said McNally, adding he is “the most qualified person” for the job.
Smith said, “I believe in people. I believe in change.”