Amid the arabesques at what will no doubt be the campaign season's most scenic debate venue, the five Santa Fe mayoral candidates once again acted with decorum in the latest forum Thursday night at the Lensic Performing Arts Center.

And once again, the debate seemed better for it. The quintet spent little time trying to score body blows or deliver withering one-liners, and the bulk of the two-hour affair was used instead to suss out subtle differences between five people who seemed as likely to praise their opponents' ideas as they were to criticize them.

Kate Noble, the former city economic development employee and current Santa Fe Public Schools board member, told the mostly packed house it was her favorite byproduct of ranked-choice voting. “We have to play nice because we all have to ask for no. 2 votes,” she theorized.

Noble, who runs ideologically close to Alan Webber and has vied with him for endorsements from many of the same political power players, tried from the outset to distance herself from the entrepreneur and onetime Democratic candidate for governor.

Alan Webber (left) and Ron Trujillo share a moment of levity before the debate. | Matt Grubs
Alan Webber (left) and Ron Trujillo share a moment of levity before the debate. | Matt Grubs

Sponsored by Hutton Broadcasting, the Santa Fe Chamber of Commerce, The New Mexican newspaper and a handful of other businesses, the forum's first question came from columnist and editor Milan Simonich. He pointed to $2 million of misspent parks bond money as a key to the erosion of trust in their city government by Santa Feans. Voters approved $30 million in bonds in 2008 to improve city parks, but a review by the state auditor found some of that money had improperly been used to pay salaries instead of to fund improvements to the parks themselves. How might they restore the faith, the moderator wondered.

Webber got first crack and pivoted to a familiar talking point. "The real problem you're referring to is, I think, a failure to plan ahead," he said. The misspent money wouldn't have been so painful, he said, if the city had been better prepared for the recession. Webber promised to work up a fiscal contingency plan as soon as he entered office.

"To say that there was no fiscal planning going into the recession is absolutely inaccurate," Noble began her answer to the same question. Yes, the city relied too much on informal accounting practices and procedures, Noble said, but she herself led a budget restructuring team that focused on making the smallest cuts to central services as a strategy to bridge the dip of the recession. The idea was also, she said, to keep city workers employed and not to create a downward economic spiral in the private sector as furloughed or fired workers spent less.

Each candidate had a chance to ask one of their opponents a question, and Noble used hers to push at Webber once more. She challenged an idea Webber floated in a weekend op-ed piece to create a women's advisory council, saying, "Women need to not be in an advisory role. We need real seats at the table." Words matter, she said, and asked him to use a better one than "advisory" as a few hoots from the audience rang out.

"I think women belong in all parts of city government," Webber parried. He suggested a pay equity study and pledged to seek an equal number of women in any appointments or hires he made. But he stuck by his idea, arguing the city needs an advocacy group at the front end of every issue so women's rights could "not only be protected, but advanced aggressively."

Not a bad view | Matt Grubs
Not a bad view | Matt Grubs

When he got a chance to ask his own question, Webber made a confident play, turning instead to District 4 Councilor Ron Trujillo and wondering how a mayor should better advocate for the Southside.

All the questions came through the moderators Thursday evening and most were on point, including when Hutton radio host Richard Eeds asked candidates how they would have handled the Entrada protests and what should change next year.

Trujillo, who played the role of Don Diego de Vargas in 1994, advocated a collaborative approach, as he did throughout the evening and in other forums. He indirectly criticized Mayor Javier Gonzales as being too late to the issue. "You don't wait one week before Fiestas and the Entrada to start having these conversations," Trujillo said, stressing that the dialogue that has taken place didn't include all parties. The Caballeros de Vargas, he said, hadn't been invited to the table. That would change, he said, with each group having equal standing.

Joseph Maestas, the District 2 councilor and engineer who is also a former mayor of Española, was at his most forceful answering the same question. "This is the longest-running community celebration in the country," he said of Fiestas. "You can't just go in and make wholesale changes without having the right people at the table."

"But we have to acknowledge," Maestas continued, "that it's naive of us to take a specific point in time that was peaceful, but was preceded and succeeded by violence and oppression … and say, 'That was a peaceful slice of time.' We need to acknowledge it and address it and move on."

Maestas and Noble had strong criticism of the police response, with the councilor saying he was appalled and embarrassed by the "free-speech zones" created for protestors. Noble said the police had worked themselves up fearing a large protest and said the protest zones were "nonsense."

"You can't just scale it up out of fear," Maestas warned, saying riots in Charlottesville may have grabbed headlines, but had little likelihood of being echoed in Santa Fe.

If four of the candidates are about change as the city elects its first full-time mayor, Peter Ives is the one who says change is already here. The attorney and District 2 city councilor spent much of the evening emphasizing the work that's taking place in city government in response to scathing audits and widespread criticism of an antiquated system of accounting.

"You are seeing more change in the past two to three years than in the past two to three decades at City Hall," Ives said. An effective mayor would ensure that those changes—to accounting practices, to training and to technical updates—continued unabated instead of getting lost in the shuffle of an executive transition.

Simonich, who recently penned a column in which he pronounced his refusal to rank anyone second on his ballot, nearly brought the house down with the evening's final question: Who, he wondered, would each of the candidates rank second on their ballot in March?

Perhaps because they viewed two minutes unused in a forum as two minutes wasted, each candidate took the full time before announcing their decision.

Trujillo said he'd vote for Ives. Ives returned the favor, telling him, "I think you're my man." Maestas, who told the chuckling audience they had themselves to thank for changing the charter, also said he'd slot Trujillo in as his second choice. Noble deferred, saying she hadn't made up her mind, and described her ideal candidate. It sounded a lot like her.

Webber, who fielded three questions from his four opponents, joked that he thought he might have earned one second-place vote from them. He praised each of them as the clock wore on, but ultimately played the time card, saying, "I suspect if I were going to vote today, I would … oh, I'm out of time."

Simonich pushed him with a follow-up, asking if he planned to duck the question. Webber ultimately said he'd look hard at both Trujillo and Ives.