SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) – The stage was not only set at the University of San Francisco Thursday night for the first debate of San Francisco’s latest mayoral contest – the stage was downright packed, with 9 candidates taking part in the Mayoral Forum on Service, which focused on issues affected community service and education within the City.

KCBS’ Chris Filippi Reports:

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By all accounts, the participants were cordial and collaborative, much like the tone they all said they would strike if elected in November.

State Sen. Leland Yee, supervisors David Chiu and John Avalos, City Attorney Dennis Herrera, former supervisors Tony Hall, Bevan Dufty and Michela Alioto-Pier, City Assessor-Recorder Phil Ting and venture capitalist Joanna Rees were all invited to Thursday evening’s debate.

The debate was essentially free of argument or discourse between the candidates, partly due to the forum’s format, which only allowed for opening statements, answers to prepared questions, and a brief closing statement.

Still, the friendly atmosphere may also have been because of the city’s ranked-choice voting system, which requires voters to list their top three picks for the position, and will likely require the candidates to align with some opponents in order to get second- and third-place votes.

Many of the candidates described their upbringing and experience in public service or the business sector, and answered questions about how they might deal with looming budget deficits and how they can help struggling neighborhoods in the city.

“These are very tough times for cities around the country,” Avalos said. “Local governments are forced to do more with less.”

A number of the candidates stressed that collaborations between the government and community groups were essential to maintaining the quality of life San Franciscans expect.

“The best we can do in government, we achieve when we have the involvement of the community,” Herrera said.

According to Yee, “We have to keep the notion of community participation alive” to counteract dwindling help from the state level.

Dufty said San Franciscans know how to “find common ground in this very small, special place.”

Some candidates also touted their accomplishments in public office.

Chiu said he has helped change the tone at City Hall since becoming the president of the Board of Supervisors three years ago and is helping to formulate a pension reform plan to help lessen the city’s budget deficit.

Ting said his work in launching GoSolarSF, the city’s first municipal solar energy incentive program, has led to “a cleaner and greener San Francisco,” including solar panels on four times as many house rooftops now as there were when the program started in 2008.

Hall touted his 30-plus years of experience in various city departments, and accomplishments as a supervisor, including restoring the Ocean Avenue commercial district and Harding Park Golf Course, while Alioto-Pier talked about her work as a policy advisor in the Clinton White House and advocate for the disabled.

Rees, the lone candidate among the nine with no public sector experience, emphasized her business background and commitment to innovation.

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“I’m not part of the City Hall crowd,” she said.

She said if each of the candidates were as open to embracing innovation as she is, “I would be supporting them and not running.”

In all, more than 30 candidates have filed to run for mayor, in what is still largely considered a wide open race.

Interestingly, one of those not on that long list: Ed Lee, who became interim mayor earlier this year when Gavin Newsom was sworn in as California’s Lieutenant Governor.

KCBS’ Barbara Taylor Reports:

Lee became mayor unexpectedly, chosen by the supervisors to replace Newsom. At the time, he said he would not run for the job.

“The door is shut, I’m not running. I’m making no plans to be part of the election at all.”

Assuming he does leave the mayoral post in November 2011, city leaders have already begun taking steps to give him a bit of job security – clearing the way for Lee to remain gainfully employed by San Francisco when his brief mayoral term ends.

“I thank you for this enormous honor and the enormous responsibility to serve as your mayor,” he said back in January after being selected interim mayor. He had to leave his post as City Administrator and under current ethics law, he can’t get it back.

Thursday, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors rules committee carved out an exception, which would allow Lee to take another city job, though it would have to be his old salary.

The offer would be null and void if he elected to run for mayor.

“If the interim mayor does decide to run,” detailed supervisor Jane Kim, “he will no longer be eligible for this ordinance, will not be able to return to his employment.”

She made clear, though, that she supported the exception.

“This ordinance came forward out of an exceptional circumstance which is when we have a mayor that is elected to another seat and we are scrambling to find leadership in an interim mayor.”

The exemption was forward to the full board for consideration.

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