DURHAM — The two candidates running for mayor accused each other of dishonesty and poor leadership during a feisty debate Tuesday night.
Mayor Bill Bell busted out the "l" word when asked about opponent Thomas Stith III's campaign mailer that charged, in bold letters: "Bill Bell knew and didn't tell us our water was dangerous to drink."
"That mailer sent out by Thomas Stith was a complete lie," Bell said.
Bell said he didn't know any more about lead in some Durham drinking water than other council members.
The issue arose last year when lead from some pipes leached into some customers' drinking water. The city since has been fined and placed on probation for failing to report to the state dozens of test results that showed high lead levels.
Squaring off Tuesday on the Duke University campus, Stith countered that Bell seemed more concerned about backing then-water director Terry Rolan. Rolan took heat for being out of town during much of the lead fiasco because he was president of a water trade group.
"The mayor was too busy defending our staff, who was in China or Canada or wherever, saying it was OK to have him serving on a national level, when the citizens of Durham were at risk," Stith said.
Two weeks away from Election Day, Bell is fiercely defending his record while lambasting Stith for his ineffectiveness during eight years on council.
"I can't attack his leadership because he's provided none," said Bell, who is seeking a fourth term. "There's nothing to attack."
Stith said he has come up with ideas in which the mayor and other council members declined to support him.
On crime issues, Stith repeatedly talks about Durham police getting more involved with federal agencies to crack down on illegal immigrants who commit crimes and gang members.
"The problem is we don't have strong leadership that will pursue the ideas we know work," Stith said.
Bell said Stith's claims that more federal involvement will reduce crime significantly are unrealistic.
"Saying it and doing it are two different things," Bell said. "If I could wave my hand, a magic wand, and say there be no crime in Durham, I would do it. Crime is not going to be solved by law enforcement alone. Prevention and intervention is something we all can take a part of."
The debate drifted several times to Stith's campaign tactics, like the glossy mailer alleging Bell's water malfeasance.
"I'm really quite disturbed that a City Council member would go to the extremes this person is going to," Bell said.
Stith defended his mailers as factual.
"I know we're dealing with significant and sensitive issues," Stith said. "I don't think informing our citizens is divisive."
More than 100 people turned out at the event.
At least two attendees weren't much swayed by the debate.
"Mayor Bell hasn't seemed to be on top of things," said David Smudski, 56. "I'm leaning toward Thomas Stith because I like his message on accountability. I don't think that changed."
Malcolm Riley, 25, said he likely will support Bell.
"He definitely has a track record of commitment to the city," Riley said. "I can connect with people not just saying it's an issue but trying to proactively empower the people and give them the resources and opportunity to make the community better."
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