Corporations Gain Access to Mayors


By Jenny Price

Associated Press
June 17, 2002

The U.S. Conference of Mayors has drawn more than 200 leaders from around the country this week to discuss issues from affordable housing to the environment. But the conference is also being attended by corporations that are coming under fire for providing financial contributions that critics say give them access ordinary citizens couldn't afford.

"The catch is that these mayors are representatives of the people, not representatives of the corporations," said Nick Kropotkin, 25, a member of Creative People's Resistance. "We believe the public should be able to have either a, equal input, or b, total input," he said. "The public will be completely roped off."

On Sunday, some of the frustration spilled out to the streets of Madison. About 200 protesters, some in masks, gathered outside a reception at the University of Wisconsin's Memorial Union Terrace, where corporate interests paid thousands of dollars to hang out with the mayors, partying to the sounds of a blues band while drinking beer and eating bratwurst.

During the march, protesters carried signs that read "Corporations are not people" and "Cities for people! Not profits!" Some protesters tried to knock down and break through a snow fence closing off the area, and some threw objects at police officers in riot gear, resulting in six arrests, police said.

Madison Mayor Sue Bauman said close to $900,000 in corporate contributions are what made it possible for the city -- one of the smallest to host the conference -- to cover the cost of various social and evening events, transportation, youth events and tours for spouses. "The conference of mayors is made up of mayors; the dues come from taxpayer moneys," she said. "I'm not about to use taxpayer dollars for food and beverage and entertainment, and that's why we've raised money."

In addition to sponsoring social events, more than 70 individual companies pay $10,000 each in annual dues to be members of the conference's business council, which was established to help cities work more closely with corporations. Philip Morris spokesman Dave Tovar said sponsoring the conference and being on the council gives the company a chance to meet one-on-one with the mayors. "Every year federal, state and local governments take action on a number of issues that are of concern to a number of our employees and shareholders," Tovar said. The company paid $75,000 for the conference. Daimler-Chrysler spokesman James Kenyon said the automaker, a $25,000 sponsor which hosted a Sunday picnic for the mayors at a Madison park, is using the conference for marketing and lobbying.

Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick drove into the convention center Saturday in the automaker's Dodge Ram truck, billed as the "Mayor of Truckville." But Kenyon said the company also wants to meet with the mayors to gain some influence. "We are very interested in the rules and regulation and laws that govern those cities and how they affect us," he said. "It's very important that we interact."

Jeff Griffin, mayor of Reno, Nev., said the corporate sponsorships are entirely appropriate. When Reno hosted the conference four years ago, the city raised $850,000 from private donors and ended up giving $150,000 to charity, he said. "I don't think there's corporate influence by any means. I think we do business with people who like to do business with mayors and cities," he said.

Kropotkin said the corporate involvement shows the mayors' conference has moved too far away from its original mission. "It has entirely lost its focus and its meaning as being a resource for citizens to improve daily life," he said.

Associated Press writer Sarah Wyatt contributed to this story.

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