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Obama, with stimulus underway, warns mayors about waste

The president, meeting with U.S. mayors at the White House, vows to use his full power to expose any misuse of the $787 billion in economic stimulus dollars.

February 21, 2009|Frank James and Ben Meyerson

WASHINGTON — Even as President Obama told a gathering of the nation's mayors Friday that they have a friend in the White House, he warned that he would use the power of the presidency to crack down on them if they misuse stimulus dollars meant to boost the economy out of its doldrums.

"We have asked for the unprecedented trust of the American people to deal boldly with the greatest economic crisis we've seen in decades -- and with that the privilege of investing unprecedented amounts of their hard-earned money to address this crisis," Obama said. "With that comes unprecedented obligations to spend that money wisely, free from politics and free from personal agendas. On this I will not compromise or tolerate any shortcuts."

The mayors, who were in Washington for the winter meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, in turn encouraged Obama to focus the stimulus money on cities, where they said it would have the biggest impact. Giving state governments too much leeway with the funds could reduce the stimulus plan's effectiveness, they said.

"We raised the concern that some states, particularly states like California, may try to use the money to balance its budget," Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said after the meeting at the White House, attended by about 80 mayors. "We want to make sure that the metropolitan areas . . . are getting their fair share. What we don't want is states building roads that connect the ducks to the geese, and not people to goods, the way metropolitan areas do."

Obama cautioned the mayors that the American people had placed their trust in their political leaders to spend the $787 billion wisely, and that such trust would be squandered if mayors and other officials wound up wasting the money on dubious projects.

"If a federal agency proposes a project that will waste that money, I will not hesitate to call them out on it and put a stop to it," Obama told the mayors. "And I want everybody here to be on notice . . . if a local government does the same, I will call them out on it and use the full power of my office and our administration to stop it."

The president's warning was meant to deal with a major concern about so much federal money being pumped into state and local governments in a relatively short time. But Mayor Doug Palmer of Trenton, N.J., had no problem with it.

"As mayors that have to deal with problems of our citizens every day, we don't mind being called out," Palmer said. "We get called out every day by our citizens who want help, and so we welcome that kind of accountability."

Although Republican Mayor Pat McCrory of Charlotte, N.C., opposed parts of the stimulus package initially, he said he wouldn't turn down the cash.

"I didn't agree with all the parts of the stimulus bill as it was passed. However, now that it's passed, I want it to work the best way it can," McCrory said. "I was very pleased with President Obama's comment regarding accountability, that . . . he'll be watching the mayors to make sure the money is not seen as pork or not spent wisely."

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fjames@tribune.com

bmeyerson@tribune.com

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