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Little City, Big Dogs 

Mayor Mary Verner sees Spokane shine in a national setting

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Spokane's Mary Verner was among a group of mayors from around the country last week having a conversation with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner on a variety of economic and policy issues.

She had a question for Geithner about trade with China but, she says, “I couldn’t get their attention to call on me.”

And then, as Verner recounts, “They make the grand announcement, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, the President and Vice President of the United States of America.”

When Barack Obama and Joe Biden swept into the room, the 200 mayors sat up a little straighter, Verner says, turned off their cell phones and behaved themselves.

It became a peak moment for Verner in Washington, D.C., attending for the first time the U.S. Conference of Mayors annual winter gathering.

“I never thought in my lifetime I’d be in the same room as the First Lady. And then to be in the same room the next day with the President and the Vice President — those were definitely highlights in my professional career.”

The highlight moment amped up when President Obama, taking questions only from a handful of the 200 in attendance, gestured at Verner and asked, “And what is your question, young lady?”

INLANDER: What was that like, to be called on by the president?

VERNER: “When he called on me as a ‘young lady,’ I looked behind me to see who was the lucky person,” the 50-something Verner says, laughing. She asked the same question she didn’t get to ask Geithner, about “foreign policy impediments” to businesses seeking to export clean energy products and services to China.

Obama responded that it’s “urgent” to pay attention to the domestic clean energy economy so the nation doesn’t fall behind other countries.

How would you rate his answer?

“Perfectly on point. He is a very good listener and he addressed my question and he did that for all the mayors. He was asked an array of questions [on a wide variety of topics] and I was very impressed.

What else was on your priorities list?

COPS program funds. It’s always up for cuts at any time by the federal government and the mayors wanted to make a point … that this is not a time to be cutting the COPS programs because local communities are facing such severe cuts in local police forces. We really rely on the COPS programs now to fi ll in the gaps we can’t pay for. Here in Spokane, we average 55,000 hours per year from our COPS volunteers.

Stimulus dollars. The most effective way to create jobs is to send stimulus dollars directly to cities. Right now, there’s a big frustration among mayors that stimulus dollars get funded through the states — and the states, for the most part, have used stimulus funds to backfill their budget gaps.

Takeaways?

We want Spokane to be there with the big dogs. We recognize we are no Miami, no Chicago or New Orleans. But when it comes to second-tier cities, Spokane is a player on the national stage and we are doing innovative things and we want the administration, the Congress and other cities to take note.

We are out on the forefront of sustainable cities. We are at least on the same level of innovation on transportation as other cities our size.

We’re actively pursuing a foreign trade component other cities our size are not.

The [five] mayors who attended from Washington state had a sidebar conversation with Ron Sims, who’s now the deputy secretary for HUD. He was talking about how the HUD approach is to have a regional strategy for affordable housing and services for the homeless. He’d been out [in Spokane] last fall, and he knows we have already done regional task forces on housing and homelessness.

So it was good to hear Spokane is several steps out ahead of other communities.

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