WASHINGTON - Even as President Barack Obama told the nation's mayors yesterday that they now have a friend in the White House, he warned that he would use the "full power" of the presidency to expose and crack down on them if they misuse the stimulus dollars meant to boost the economy out of its doldrums.
The mayors, in turn, encouraged Obama to focus the stimulus on cities, where they said it would have the greatest impact. Giving state governments too much leeway with the funds could reduce the effectiveness of the program, they said.
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, who were gathered in the White House. "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 mayors, including Antonio Villaraigosa of Los Angeles and Richard Daley of Chicago, were in Washington for the winter meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
Absent from the meeting was Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon, who was indicted last month on 12 counts including theft, perjury and misuse of office.
Her absence became contentious after her spokesman, Scott Peterson, said Thursday morning that Dixon would attend and was scrambling to change her flights from Florida, where she was speaking at a conference on homelessness. A few hours later, Peterson reversed himself, saying that the U.S. Conference of Mayors made a mistake and that Dixon was not invited.
In their meeting with Obama, the mayors implored the president to get the stimulus money out as quickly as possible and to direct it to urban areas, where they said it would be most effective.
"We raised the concern that some states, particularly states like California, may try to use the money to balance its budget," Villaraigosa said after the meeting. "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."
The president's warning addressed concerns about so much federal money being pumped into state and local governments in a relatively short time. Mayor Doug Palmer of Trenton, N.J., said he had no problem with the president's warning.
"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."
Though Republican Mayor Pat McCrory of Charlotte, N.C., initially opposed parts of the stimulus package, he said he wouldn't turn down the cash now.
"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."
Obama's warning appeared to be an effort to portray the president as a tough-talking guardian of the public purse, which could help inoculate him when inevitable controversies erupt over how the money is being spent by some municipalities.
Baltimore Sun reporter Annie Linskey contributed to this article.