250 U.S. Mayors to Gather in City for Conference : Government: Importance of sessions stressed, despite the fact that the conference has been snubbed by some top public and political figures.


Eager to help shape the 1992 political agenda, about 250 of the nation's mayors will arrive in San Diego this weekend, determined not to allow snubs by a number of high-profile speakers to interfere with either that goal or their good time.

In the 59th annual meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the mayors will release reports and hold seminars on topics ranging from AIDS and the homeless to crime and cities' growing frustration over under-funded federally mandated programs.

Though much of the six-day conference, which begins today at the U.S. Grant Hotel downtown, is aimed at getting Washington to pay greater heed to local governments' concerns, the group has had difficulty getting the nation's top political and governmental figures to even notice its meeting.

President Bush, Vice President Dan Quayle and a handful of prominent governors and senators mentioned as potential Democratic presidential candidates--including New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder and Sen. Albert Gore of Tennessee--were invited to speak, but all declined.

Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf and Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also sent their regrets. "They've been pretty busy on the parade route," a conference official remarked.

However, former Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas, the only announced Democratic presidential contender, is scheduled to address the conference Monday. That RSVP at least allows conference officials to joke about a situation that could leave the mayors feeling like political Rodney Dangerfields.

"I'm telling people that 100% of the announced Democratic candidates have agreed to come, and his name is Paul Tsongas," said Tom Cochran, the group's executive director.

Meanwhile, San Diego officials, not wanting an event that they are spending about $150,000 to host to be seen as a party with a B-list guest roster, are a bit defensive on that score.

"Well, the name of the conference is the U.S. Conference of Mayors, not the conference of presidential candidates or anyone else," said Paul Downey, San Diego Mayor Maureen O'Connor's press secretary. "Besides, all the big-name mayors are coming." Gov. Pete Wilson, a former San Diego mayor, also is scheduled to appear.

Of the more than 90 proposed resolutions dealing with a wide range of urban issues to be reviewed at the conference, several common themes will serve as a backdrop to much of the mayors' debate, starting with their mounting displeasure over the increasing number of programs mandated but not financed by Washington.

"I hope we don't come across like we're standing there with a tin cup just looking for more money, because that's not the case," said Colorado Springs Mayor Robert Isaac, the conference's outgoing president. At next Wednesday's closing session, Isaac is expected to be succeeded by Boston Mayor Raymond Flynn.

"Whenever Congress decides to strike a blow for the handicapped or the environment or whatever . . . we're the ones who have to raise taxes or cut other programs to carry it out," Isaac added. "We're being micromanaged by the federal government. All we're saying is, if there are going to be mandates, some money should be there, too."

Conceding that the conference has merely "inched ahead" in its repeated attempts to sensitize Washington to that concern, Isaac and other conference leaders acknowledge that the mayors' organization has had a mixed record in pushing its priorities to the forefront of the political agenda.

They argue, for example, that the mayors have helped to keep public attention--and, more importantly, political debate--riveted on crime and social woes stemming from illegal drug use, a problem that has strained many local budgets. Federal drug policy, they say, incorporates many of the group's past recommendations.

Similarly, the group's lobbying helped block a Bush Administration proposal to shift Community Development Block Grants, a popular federal program that funds myriad local projects, to the states--a transfer that many mayors felt would have further eroded local control and diluted funding by adding another bureaucratic layer to the process.

"We want to push for more direct funding for cities from the federal government," Downey said. "Whenever possible, we'd prefer to not have to deal with the state system."

Such successes, however, are offset by an even longer list of cases in which the conference's priorities left federal lawmakers unmoved. Two of the major policy proposals at last year's conference--a call for an end to the Gramm-Rudman deficit-reduction law, which has resulted in deep cuts to urban programs, and for cities to share in the so-called "peace dividend" expected to flow from defense cutbacks--generated more yawns than action in Washington.

The resolutions to be debated at the San Diego convention include proposals for an anti-recession program that features an expanded summer youth jobs program; establishment of minimum federal standards for workers' unpaid family and medical leave; expansion of children's programs such as Head Start and prenatal care services, and for targeting federal transportation funds to areas with the worst traffic congestion.

Even if the conference's action on those matters fails to produce tangible dividends in Washington, O'Connor aide Downey argues that the debate itself is valuable, serving as a "round table for ideas" for dealing with the mayors' shared problems.

"The mayors are the ones on the front lines, so ideas and solutions to major problems are more likely to come from there than Washington," Downey said. The inspiration for San Diego's Interfaith Shelter Network, in which churches and synagogues house the homeless on a rotating basis, came from information O'Connor picked up at a previous mayors' meeting, Downey noted.

As with most conferences, this one will not be all work and no play for the mayors or their families. Beyond the $150,000 being spent by the city, private businesses have donated another $250,000 to help underwrite many of the conference's recreational activities, including a night at Sea World, dinner at the Convention Center, a San Diego Symphony Pops concert and visits to the beach and Balboa Park.

"If they have a good time in San Diego and go home and tell people about it, so much the better," Downey said.

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