From NBC's Athena Jones
WASHINGTON -- President Obama pledged to do all he could to ensure stimulus dollars were not wasted, telling a group of some 80 mayors gathered in the East Room of the White House Friday that he would "call them out" if they spent the funds unwisely.
He said he would do the same to federal agencies who wasted taxpayer dollars, while highlighting the scope and scale of a plan he fought hard to pass.
"This plan does more to lay a new foundation for our cities' growth and opportunity than anything else Washington has done in generations and it will bring real and lasting change for generations to come," the president said.
The word of the hour at the East Room event was "unprecedented," with Obama and Vice President Joe Biden stressing that the recovery package included "unprecedented investment in American cities" and that the American people had placed "unprecedented trust" in the Obama administration to implement this plan effectively, something that would require "unprecedented responsibility and accountability" on everyone's part.
The focus on responsibility comes at a time when the country is facing rising unemployment, a credit crunch and a home foreclosure crisis. In the past week, the president has announced a plan to stem foreclosures and the largest economic recovery package in history.
Now he wants to assure the public that this money will not go to waste. Next Thursday, he is set to present the budget for fiscal year 2010. On Monday, he and Biden will also host a summit on fiscal responsibility on Monday. Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said the governors from around the nation who have been invited to the White House for dinner Sunday night and for a meeting on Monday will hear the same message about the need to be good stewards of taxpayer money.
Biden, who introduced the president, said cities and mayors had long-been neglected when it came to matters of national policy even though 65 percent of the population and seven of 10 jobs reside in cities.
"Cities are vital to our economy, essential to our recovery and haven't been paid much attention to," he said. "Our economy can never reach, in our view, it's full potential, if we have people who are living blocks away but worlds away from the bustling downtown full of opportunity."
On hand for the event were Attorney General Eric Holder, HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan, Transporation Secretary Ray LaHood, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser. At one point a gaggle of mayors cornered LaHood near the stage, according to a pool report.
One of them, Laredo, Texas Mayor Raul G. Salinas, shared with reporters on the sidelines of the event his concern that channeling stimulus fund through state governments would delay the process of getting it mayors. He said he would ask the president to stop a "bureaucratic stalemate," according to the pool report.
Salinas was among several other city leaders -- who traveled from as far away as Honolulu -- that sought to drive home the point that stimulus money must reach cities quickly. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, who expressed those same concerns last month about federal aid after a meeting at the White House with the director of intergovernmental affairs, repeated them today when some of the mayors spoke with reporters after the event.
"It took two-and-a-half years before the money really hit the city of New Orleans after Katrina, and I made the point that if this stimulus money travels on same track then there will be lots of unspent dollars at the end of this initiative," Nagin said. "They assured us that they're going to push the money as quickly as they can to the states some of it directly to the cities."
Obama also took the opportunity at today's event to publicly hail his pick to head a new White House Office of Urban Affairs, Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion, who becomes the third Hispanic to file a high-level staff position.
"Adolfo wrote a real success story in the Bronx as borough president," Obama said, "and now he's gonna be working will all of you to write our next success story in cities across the country. He's gonna be responsible for coordinating all federal urban programs, and I've asked him to set up an advisory council with mayors and other urban leaders so that we can develop a new metro strategy based on the lessons that you've learned."