New Haven’s four mayoral candidates met in a public forum for the first time Tuesday evening to lay out their visions for the city at a standing-room-only debate at Gateway Community College.

At the approximately 90-minute event, which will likely be the only debate before the Nov. 3 election, eight-term incumbent John DeStefano Jr. drew on his experience to emphasize the importance of tax stabilization, job creation, and education reform to New Haven’s future prosperity, whereas his challengers, all of whom are independents, generally spoke in vague terms about what they would each do if elected mayor.

For the most part, the evening’s discussion revolved around New Haven’s fiscal situation and education reform, and provided DeStefano with a forum to announce in his closing statements that the New Haven teachers’ union had approved a new contract with the city — a key development in the mayor’s plan for comprehensive education reform.

Yet while the debate focused on policy and politics, challengers Ralph Ferrucci and Henri Sumner were not shy about interjecting with quips and personal anecdotes.

Quizzing the candidates on issues such as the state’s budget, taxes and jobs was a panel of four reporters from various New Haven-based media outlets.

One of the members of the panel was Paul Bass ’82, who was representing the New Haven Independent. In an interview prior to the debate, Bass called the evening’s debate “the one chance in this campaign for the city to debate issues in the way that more active campaigns do every day.”

The debate followed the following format: A question was asked of one candidate and after that candidate had responded within one minute, the others had 30 seconds to respond to his or her answer. The candidate who answered the question first had the opportunity to respond again after the others had answered.

Bass opened the debate by asking how the candidates would increase the number of New Haven residents who recycle. Angela Watley, the race’s only female candidate and a police department employee, was the first person to answer a question and could not manage an answer — “I don’t know right now,” she responded.

However, she was more animated later on in the event when she discussed her desire to improve New Haven’s schools and to increase the amount of attention city government gives to all of New Haven’s neighborhoods.

When the talk turned to the city’s finances Ferrucci emphasized that if elected mayor he would push for the city to tax Yale, a point to which he returned throughout the night.

“We should look to Yale to pay their fair share,” he said. “They don’t pay their fair share.”

This year, Yale increased its annual voluntary payment to the city of New Haven to more than $7 million, an increase of $2.5 million.

Still, of all the candidates, only DeStefano had the advantage of being able to discuss policy that is already in place or that is in the process of being implemented and cited his freeze on property taxes this year and plans for working with local hospitals and clinics to distribute the H1N1 vaccine. Nevertheless, DeStefano also disagreed with the other candidates on a number of issues, such as whether the city should look outside of New Haven for a new Chief of Police, when current New Haven Police Department Chief James Lewis leaves his current post.

When asked a question about New Haven’s policies of towing cars to bring in revenue if too many tickets are not paid off, Watley suggested changing the program and Ferrucci — who declared that he owed a little over $100 in parking tickets on his three cars — called the current policy “a little too aggressive.”

“I think people should pay their taxes and pay their fee in fines,” DeStefano said.

DeStefano also disagreed with the other candidates who said that the New Haven Board of Education should be elected. Currently, members of the Board of Education are appointed by DeStefano.

“It would be a disaster,” he said, adding that he thought an elected school board would turn into factions fighting against each other.

Education reform is a focal point of DeStefano’s reelection platform, said Keya Jayaram, his campaign manager said in an interview Tuesday afternoon.

If elected on Nov. 3, DeStefano will be New Haven’s longest-serving elected mayor.