The future direction of Leesburg’s historic downtown was a major topic at Thursday’s candidates forum. (Amanda Voisard/For the Washington Post)

Three candidates for mayor of Leesburg faced off Thursday evening in a public forum that focused on issues such as the revitalization of downtown, taxes and whether the town should consider seeking city status.

Mayor David S. Butler, Vice Mayor Kelly Burk and former town council member Kevin D. Wright expressed differences on some issues in a discussion that revealed how each would govern if elected.

The candidates are vying for the seat that had been occupied by Kristen C. Umstattd from 2002 until her election to the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors last year. Each candidate has served multiple terms on the town council, which in February appointed Butler to serve the rest of Umstattd’s term.

The candidates, who know one another well, avoided direct criticism of one another. Burk emphasized her experience on the council and Board of Supervisors; Wright focused on a desire to create a civil environment to engage the public in solving problems; and Butler talked of his ability to get things done.

The revitalization of downtown Leesburg was a main topic. Burk characterized it as “vibrant,” saying it has moved forward in recent years. Butler said that downtown is “not at the place where it needs to be” and that the council should look into tax credits and other incentives for businesses.

“Downtown is moving more toward nights and weekends, less during the days,” Butler said, referring to efforts to stimulate arts and nightlife. “We have to improve that and incentivize the businesses.”

Wright said he would try to reduce red tape and support businesses “without getting in their way,” adding that he hears from people who think not all businesses are treated the same.

“There’s a set of rules for those that are kind of well liked by some of the council, and there’s a set of rules that maybe apply to everybody else,” he said. “We need to make sure that we have one set of rules and that we are applying them fairly and equally.”

Butler favors looking into the possibility of Leesburg being designated a city instead of a town, which, he said, could lower overall taxes for residents. Wright said that undertaking such a study would “fracture” the town’s relationship with the county and that he would rather focus on eliminating duplications between town and county services.

The forum revealed different approaches the candidates would take as mayor.

Burk, a retired teacher, said she could devote more time to the position because the other candidates would have to balance mayoral responsibilities with full-time jobs.

Butler and Wright said that devoting time to both won’t be a problem. Wright added that having another job helps him see things from the perspective of other residents.

Butler asked that he be judged on his performance as mayor this year — “what I’ve done and how I’ve acted and how I’ve run meetings.”

“The council is too often afraid to say yes, and we’re too reactive,” he said.

Burk and Wright referred several times to the need to change the tone of council meetings.

“We always need to have an environment where we’re listening, where we’re learning, where people feel welcome and engaged,” Wright said.

“Things aren’t very clear and very open and very honest at this point,” Burk said. “I want to make sure that the public feels welcome, feels involved. I will never, ever, ever make fun of or criticize a speaker that comes before the council, because the public is our boss.”

After the forum, when asked about her comment, Burk said “certain council members” sometimes fail to treat residents with respect. She said Butler had gotten angry with a group of residents who had come to speak about the noise ordinance, and “referred to them in a very unflattering manner” during the meeting.

Butler responded in an interview that the meeting occurred “a couple of years ago,” before he was mayor, and that he had been angry at other council members, not the residents who spoke.

“I encourage anybody to go look at all of the tapes,” Butler said. “There’s been nothing like that since I’ve been mayor.”