RICHMOND -- Everyone in the 11-candidate field for the November City Council election agrees that this long-maligned city has a bright future. How to get there is a different story.

The candidates showed sharp disagreements in a debate last week on key issues such as the economy, violent crime, Chevron's local refinery and a penny-per-ounce tax on businesses that sell sugar-sweetened beverages.

The hourlong debate at Contra Costa Television studios in Martinez was moderated by Contra Costa Times columnist Lisa Vorderbrueggen. The debate will air beginning in early October and run through the Nov. 6 election on KCRT.

Nine of the 11 candidates were present -- Anthony Green and Mike Ali-Kinney did not attend -- and took turns fielding short answers to four main questions. Each delivered two-minute closing statements.

Two candidates, Nat Bates and Tom Butt, are longtime incumbents looking to stay in power. The third seat is up for grabs because Councilman Jeff Ritterman declined to run for re-election. Most political observers think Butt and Bates have good odds of holding their seats, but who replaces Ritterman -- an energetic, progressive leader in the city -- could have major implications between now and the next election in 2014.

Some of the clearest differences Wednesday emerged over Measure N, a hotly debated penny-per-ounce business tax aimed at curbing consumption of sodas and other sugar-sweetened beverages. The current council voted 5-2 earlier this year to put on the November ballot the tax and a companion advisory measure to use the proceeds on anti-obesity programs. The issue has drawn national attention.

The Washington, D.C.-based American Beverage Association may spend more than $1 million fighting the local measure.

Three candidates -- Butt, Marilyn Langlois and Eduardo Martinez -- came out in support of the tax, saying it would improve local health, fund parks and recreation and be a pioneering step in public health policy nationwide.

"We're learning more and more about how unhealthy (sugar-sweetened beverages) are," Langlois said.

The other six -- Bates, Gary Bell, Bea Roberson, Mark Wassberg, Jael Myrick and Eleanor Thompson -- were opposed.

"This tax will do more harm than good," Bell said. "This taxes poor people."

More nuanced responses came to questions regarding Chevron's massive Richmond refinery, an institution for more than a century and often a lightning rod over jobs, pollution and taxes.

All the candidates said Chevron's refinery must be a part of a healthy economic future for the city, but there were variations in how the city and the energy giant should partner.

Langlois and Martinez, both backed by the Richmond Progressive Alliance, a political group often critical of Chevron, said the city should play an active role in ensuring community safety and pressing Chevron for more green-energy investments. An Aug. 6 fire at the refinery sent more than 15,000 people to the hospital complaining of illness.

"(Chevron) needs to be honest with the community," Martinez said. "Chevron tried to make it seem as if the accident was because the (environmental impact report for a proposed retrofit project) had failed, but it had nothing to do with the expansion project."

Other candidates said it was crucial that a refinery expansion -- which was blocked in court a few years ago -- gets the go-ahead.

"The refinery upgrade project is a high priority for me," Butt said. "We need to do it right" so that it leads to new jobs and revenues, he said.

Wassberg, who said he worked at Chevron in the 1980s, argued the refinery is one of the few facilities that can generate good jobs in the city.

"(Chevron) put a lot of steaks on my table," Wassberg said.

While violent crime continues to decline in Richmond, it remains an important issue, especially in many older inner-city neighborhoods, the candidates agreed. Several praised the police department and the Office of Neighborhood Safety while saying the city's economic future was linked to public safety.

"Crime is centered around unemployment," Bates said. "Our young people are desperate."

Thompson agreed. "I will make it a priority to make sure more youths get jobs."

On the economy, there was broad agreement that Richmond's best days were ahead.

Roberson said there needs to be a "change in climate," which she claimed is too often tainted by "anti-business" sentiments on the current council.

"We need to be more accepting of the businesses that are already here," Roberson said.

Myrick said he would fight for more "incentives" and tax breaks to draw businesses, especially to address the dearth of grocery stores in Richmond. Myrick also proposed setting aside city funds to help send local kids to higher education.

"We need to be ready for the jobs when they get here," Myrick said. "(We can help) every kid in Richmond get some higher training or college."

Contact Robert Rogers at 510-262-2726 or rrogers@bayareanewsgroup.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/roberthrogers

WATCH THE DEBATE

The round-table will air on the following dates on KCRT-28.
8:30 p.m. Oct. 3; noon Oct. 5; 9 p.m. Oct. 9; 8 p.m. Oct. 13; 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. Oct. 14; 11 a.m. Oct. 16; 9 a.m. Oct. 22; noon Oct. 26; 8 p.m. Oct. 29; 9 p.m. Nov. 2; 10:30 p.m. Nov. 3; noon Nov. 5; 9:30 a.m. and 7 p.m. Nov. 6