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Victor Kakulu

Emotions ran high last Thursday night at Roxbury Community College’s Reggie Lewis Track and Athletic Center, as Boston’s four mayoral candidates squared off in the first of three citywide forums hosted by nonprofit voter advocacy organization MassVOTE.

The forum attracted hundreds of minority residents from across the city, including a mix of parents, students and supporters for the respective candidates. Incumbent Mayor Thomas M. Menino, the longest-running mayor in Boston history at 16 years, and City Councilor-at-Large Sam Yoon, the first Asian American to hold elected office in the city, appeared to have the most momentum at the outset, as a number of their backers welcomed them with signs and chants outside the venue.

Before the start of the forum, many in attendance were eager to see more from Menino’s challengers — Yoon, fellow City Councilor-at-Large Michael F. Flaherty and South End businessman Kevin McCrea — than was displayed during the previous night’s televised debate.

“I’m a little biased toward Menino because of his record,” said Jennifer Uzoma, 21, a Boston resident and senior at historically black Hampton University in Virginia. “At 16 years, he’s been at it since I was little, so that’s got to count for something, right? Hopefully, I can learn more about the other candidates tonight.”

Others, such as Olu Osinubi, 26, said they felt the evening provided a critical opportunity for the mayor’s three challengers to distinguish themselves.

“I want to know what these guys are bringing to the table in concrete ideas,” said Osinubi, a clinical associate at Children’s Hospital Boston. “Whether you like Menino or not, he at least has a record to argue.”

The candidates seemed to receive the memo on the need to come out swinging, as a hail of critiques were launched during the forum, led largely by Yoon and McCrea. For its part, the audience seemed to enjoy watching the mayoral hopefuls trade blows.

Menino was kept on the defensive as his competition aggressively criticized him on issues of homelessness, inequalities in the city’s public school system and failure to enforce the Boston Jobs Policy, which mandates that at least half of positions on city job sites go to city residents, 25 percent go to minorities and 10 percent go to women.

“If I go by one more construction site with trucks with license plates from Rhode Island and New Hampshire, I’m going to lose it,” said Flaherty.

On the issue of only 47 percent of city property being taxable, McCrea said his administration would increase Boston’s tax income by selling hundreds of city-owned land parcels for top dollar, as opposed to “10 cents on the dollar,” which he said is all the mayor has gotten for land sold to “his buddies in the BRA.”

Visibly weary of the accusations, Menino dismissed McCrea’s charges as “simply untrue.” But the side comment about the Boston Redevelopment Authority opened the door for Yoon, who, like McCrea and Flaherty, is calling for the dismantling of the city’s planning and economic development agency.

“The Boston Redevelopment Authority needs to be eliminated and we need to replace it with a real community development planning department,” said Yoon, noting that the BRA operates outside of the normal government strictures of democratic oversight in that a single individual — namely, Menino — controls it.

Furthermore, Yoon talked about a misuse of affordable housing funds on the part of the city Department of Neighborhood Development (DND), deeming it “unacceptable” and promising to follow the law in dealing with it. Menino downplayed the charge of misuse, saying he had spoken with U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan on the matter and was assured the federal inquiry into DND was more about a procedural concern than any real wrongdoing.

On the issue of education, Menino voiced a theme of progress and moving forward, highlighting the recent development of new libraries in both Mattapan and at the Jeremiah Burke High School in Dorchester.

However, Flaherty reminded the crowd of the need to be honest about the Boston Public Schools’ (BPS) inability to match the level of success of the city’s colleges and universities, citing the BPS as “the future of our city.”

“We’re failing our children. It’s time to bring new leadership and perspective to that discussion,” said Flaherty.

Employment diversity was another strong point for Flaherty, who called for an increased emphasis on the role of the community in the city’s community policing strategy, as well as greater diversity at the center of city leadership.

“Diversity is Boston’s strength,” he said. “Yet when we look at the upper echelons of the Boston Police Department, it’s not diverse. From the commissioner down to the chief to the superintendent to the deputy superintendent to the sergeant, it should [look] like the faces of the city, and will under my administration.”

While saluting the mayor for the accomplishments of his tenure in office, Yoon, McCrea and Flaherty all continued to assert that Menino’s time is up. They argued that Boston residents must not only have a more prominent role in the city’s decision-making process, but must also admit that, in Yoon’s words, the city’s system of government is “broken.”

“Change comes from the grassroots level. Our system is broken because it concentrates too much power into the hands of one person — the office of the mayor,” said Yoon. “And I want to work with you to change that.”

As the first of the three scheduled mayoral forums concluded, attendees seemed anxious to hear more from the candidates.

“It’s good they chose to start things off in Roxbury,” said Henry Romain, 30, a Roxbury native. “Menino’s done a good job for as long as he’s been in office. But it’s good to see we’ve got three guys willing to call him on where he’s slipped up. I hope to hear more concrete ideas from guys like Yoon and McCrea. But tonight was good.”