Mayors pause, then resume call for federal aid

City leaders gathered here for the annual meeting of the US Conference of Mayors have been in a quandary.

Most of the 225 mayors say they doubt that another plea to Washington for more federal help will have any impact. But after considerable debate over whether it would damage their credibilty to speak up again, most supported a strong and urgent message for federal help.

One Western mayor put it thus: ''It's difficult to do (this) without our sounding like a bunch of crybabies. But if we don't warn the nation that we are on the verge of very serious problems, we're not doing our jobs.''

A broad swath of 60 resolutions, expected to be approved at the conference's midweek closing session, includes several bids for more dollars.

The mayors, for instance, are expected to call on Congress to reject various proposed cuts in federal aid and to urge passage of an emergency jobs program, including a conservation corps to rehabilitate local cultural, historical, and recreational facilities. The mayors also are expected to endorse a nuclear-weapons freeze and sing the praises of such so-far-intact federal programs as Community Development Block Grants and Urban Development Action Grants. The proposed resolution called them ''excellent examples of functioning federalism.''

In part, the mayors have been encouraged by speakers at the meeting to stand their ground in the effort to draw more help from Washington. The current conference president, Helen Boosalis, for instance, recalled that it was the delegation from the first Conference of Mayors meeting 50 years ago that appealed to President Herbert Hoover for help after the depression of the 1930s struck. Their effort eventually led Congress to pass the first relief measures for the unemployed.

And the Rev. Jesse Jackson, president of the Chicago-based Operation PUSH, in a stirring speech that brought mayors to their feet, told them that written resolutions were not enough. He urged them to march on the nation's capital with 1,000 people each. ''If in fact this is an active organization . . . you've got to stop boxing and start fighting,'' he said.

Another strong prop to the mayors' united stand here was the leaking just as the mayors convened of a Reagan administration draft report on urban policy. The report suggests that federal aid to cities in the past has essentially done more harm then good by encouraging dependence on Washington and turning mayors into ''wily stalkers'' of federal funds.

Richard Williamson, assistant to the president for intergovernmental affairs, assured the mayors that the draft report was ''unacceptable'' to President Reagan and will be further refined. He said it was prepared for Congress by a middle-management team in the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) as required by law. He promised the conference that its representatives would have the opportunity to confer with the White House before the final report is issued. HUD Secretary Samuel R. Pierce Jr. similarly played down its significance.

But the conference resolutions committee, concluding that it would be irresponsible to ignore the issue, eventually gave unanimous approval to a no-nonsense resolution rejecting the HUD report's philosophic approach and content. Mayor George Latimer of St. Paul, Minn., one of the strongest supporters of the measure, labeled the report ''an astonishing rejection of everything all of us have worked for and believe in.''

Said another city official: ''It bothers me that this administration even has staff people that think that way.''

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