Takoma Park's reputation for political activism hasn't translated into a crowded field of candidates running for office this year.

Five of six City Council candidates are unopposed. The one contested race, in Ward 2, is the result of incumbent Heather R. Mizeur's decision not to seek reelection.

But voters will decide an intense race for mayor: between four-term incumbent Kathy Porter and challenger Seth Grimes.

Voters will also decide whether the city should enact "instant runoff" municipal elections. If the measure is approved, voters in future city elections will be able to rank their choices. If no candidate wins a majority on the first round of balloting, all but the top two candidates will be eliminated and the results immediately recounted. Voters whose first choice is eliminated can have their second choice counted in the runoff, assuming that candidate was one of the top finishers in the first round of counting.

The proposal is part of a nationwide effort to reform elections. Proponents -- most notably FairVote -- say it will limit the role that so-called "spoiler" candidates can play and ensure that local leaders are elected by a majority of residents.

Takoma Park is struggling to hang on to its diverse, free-spirited culture as rising real estate values bring in new residents who may not necessarily fit in socially or politically with other residents.

Although Grimes and Porter say preserving Takoma Park's way of life is a top priority, the campaign is turning out to be a referendum on Porter.

Grimes says that Porter, 55, has been an ineffective manager of the city, which has about 17,000 residents.

"We've had years of inaction in the face of important needs: years of police understaffing, sloppy financial management and neglect of environmental goals," said Grimes, 46, a self-employed computer analyst. "I will bring fresh energy and innovative ideas that will help us regain the direction we have lacked in recent years."

Porter counters that she has the experience needed to get things done. She points to the relationships she has built with business leaders and with county and state officials.

"I have a lot of contacts I can use to try to achieve the goals that Takoma Park sets," Porter said. "Anyone who runs for office for the first time can say this or that. . . . People can look at my record and achievements, and they know what I will do."

One of Porter's priorities as mayor has been the construction of a community center on the grounds of the city's municipal complex.

The first phase is expected to open in early December, six years after planning began. The project, which was initially projected to cost $6 million, has ended up costing about $12 million.

The center was supposed to include a gymnasium, but cost constraints have delayed its construction. Grimes has been critical of Porter's oversight of the project, saying the gym should have been built.

If elected, he said he would begin to build it immediately. Porter said she's committed to building the gym but wants to "pare it down to make it less costly."

Public safety and police protection are also issues in the race. Porter notes that in 2004, Takoma Park had its lowest rate of violent crime in a decade.

Grimes argues that the police department has been chronically understaffed during Porter's tenure.

On the issue of development, both Porter and Grimes are searching for ways to redevelop the city's New Hampshire Avenue corridor.

In recent weeks, plans to build housing near the Takoma Metro station, which is located in the District, have generated controversy.

Porter said she is opposed to the project because, as proposed, it would take away too much of the Metro station's parking lot and bus stops.

"I would like to put more of an emphasis on access to transit rather than townhouses," Porter said.

Grimes, who also has doubts about the project, wants to create a Takoma Development Commission so residents and officials in both the District's Takoma neighborhood and the city of Takoma Park have a say in growth decisions near the Metro.

In the contested race for the Ward 2 council seat, Colleen Clay, 41, is up against Eileen Sobeck, 51. The ward stretches from Garland Avenue to Sligo Creek, south to Woodland Ave and from Carroll Street to New Hampshire Avenue.

Clay is an affordable housing and civil rights specialist for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Sobeck is an environmental attorney at the Department of Justice.

Clay would like to reevaluate the services offered by the city to make sure they are not being duplicated by the county or state. She also wants to lure more businesses to the city, particularly a bookstore and a "white-tablecloth restaurant."

Sobeck said she wants to focus on ways to slow the pace of condominium conversions and establish a better plan for managing growth so "development meets the character of Takoma Park."

One area of disagreement between Clay and Sobeck is what type of gym should be built at the community center.

Sobeck said she supports building one but says "it needs to be an affordable gym." Clay said she also supports building a gym but is willing to wait to ensure it is well thought out.

"I think we should have the gym we want and not rush to build it," Clay said. "No one wants a cheap gym."