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David Murray

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How to Know the Real State of the Union: By Reading the State-of-the-Village Speeches

Posted: 01/31/11 04:54 PM ET

Last week President Obama had the rhetorical luxury to talk grandly in his State of the Union Address, reminding Americans that "we do big things" and letting our imaginations take care of the rest.

But America's mayors, in their annual state of the village speeches at local libraries, chambers of commerce and community centers, are compelled to keep it real.

Which makes their speeches a truer test of the state of the nation as it is, rather than as we hope it may someday be.

Two years ago, the economy looked like a bottomless pothole. "Nothing," said Bolingbrook, Ill. Mayor Roger Claar in January of 2009, "is trending in a positive manner." He had that right, and so last year even New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg dared to declare only little plans. "Can we centralize some of our human resource functions? And information technology resources? And payment and billing systems? I think the answer is yes."

But this January, with Wall Street looking up but Main Street still boarded up, what on earth were the mayors going to tell the townspeople? To find out, I read every state of the village address I could get my hands on.

Most of them started the same way--by taking credit where credit was due. (Wherever it was due.)

"We did not wait out the storm, but busied ourselves in these last few years," said Jon Kaiman, Town Supervisor for North Hempstead, N.Y. "We have to do what people expect to be done. When streets need to be cleaned or sewers need to be unclogged. We need to be responsive and professional."

Well, as opposed to unresponsive and unprofessional, yes.

"We implemented and continued to implement the Long Range Financial plan," said Mayor Ron Sandack of Downers Grove, Ill. Implemented and continued to implement--all in the same year!

In his state of the town address, Fairfield, Conn. First Selectman Ken Flatto didn't make claims. He pointed to the facts. "Fairfield," he declared, "has become a destination known as 'the dining and arts capital' of Coastal Connecticut."

Wichita, Kan. Mayor Carl Brewer took a defiant tone, claiming credit for cutting a deal to keep the Hawker Beechcraft aviation company from moving to Louisiana. "We said NO to the State of Louisiana that tried to lure Hawker Beechcraft," he said, and went on to quote himself sounding even more truculent. "As I suggested at the time of the Hawker deal, this was a declaration that Kansas and Wichita will fight to keep its aircraft industry. As I said then, 'You're not going to take what's most important to us, and that's our aviation industry.' Simply put, we will not lose these jobs. Period."

"We have chip-sealed 19 miles of roads and completed 2,600 feet of sidewalk," said Logan, Utah Mayor Randy Watts, adding that the police and fire departments "are staying current in their training and certifications." And, get this: "We even had time to clean 78 miles of sewer mains--now that's a dirty job!"

And a dirty job well done, I'm sure.

But when it came to gazing toward the future, though, the mayors' visions differed widely.

"I see a reason to celebrate," said Columbia, S.C. Mayor Steve Benjamin in an anaphorific address that accentuated the positive.

I see Columbia capitalizing on our unique culture, history, and a natural environment second to none and I see exciting new initiatives helping us protect those resources.

I see the Southern Fried Fuel Initiative recycling nearly 400 gallons of used cooking oil and the E-Waste Recycling Program keeping over 13 tons of electronics out of our landfills.

I see energy efficient lights illuminating our city buildings, including City Hall and 20 new electric car charging pods turning our parking garages from gray to green.

I see a new dedication to protecting our waterways and keeping our drinking water clean with over $110 million in improvements to and rehabilitation of our water, sewer, and stormwater systems.

I see reason to celebrate.

I see a city of beauty and pride that protects its neighborhoods as well as its rivers.

I see 35 new police cars patrolling the streets of our north, south, metro, west, and new east region with fuel efficient engines and automatic vehicle locator systems.

I see an enforceable open container law, a back-up weapon policy that makes sense and over $2 million in federal grants for public safety equipment, training, and personnel.

I see full integration of the new computer-aided dispatch system and i see Fire Engine Companies 8 and 9 back up and running.

I see reason to celebrate.

And on like that--for 4,000 words.

Willowbrook Village President Robert A. Napoli was neither as loquacious nor as optimistic. In a cover note to his prepared remarks, Napoli wrote, "I have always been willing to confront issues head-on in an attempt to develop solutions that are appropriate for all involved parties." To that end, he told Willowbrookians, "I want to say I believe more Village cost cutting will be necessary in the future as I see no immediate end to this recession. In fact, I see a worsening of our economic climate as the Illinois Legislature now considers the reduction or elimination of State revenues currently shared with the Villages. Were the Legislature to actually take such action, the fiscal impact on our Village would be crippling."

Apparently that hopey-changey thing isn't workin' out too well for Willowbrook.

Sunbury, Ohio Mayor Len Weatherby sought to find a middle ground between light and dark. For the last couple of years, he confessed, the task of the village employees had been merely "to live from day to day, pay our bills, hopefully keep our jobs and help those who didn't."

But while "many of the economic... beliefs that we've held as axioms of truth have proven to be no longer valid," he said, "It is my belief that we as an American economy [have] bottomed out... This recovery will be slow and sporadic but it is happening.

"Hopefully," he concluded, "we can take lessons learned during this period and build an even better and stronger Sunbury," he said.

Not exactly the Sputnik moment announced by Brookhaven, Long Island Mayor Mark Lesko in his state of the town speech.

After claiming some gritty gains--"We passed the Blight to Light code amendments, giving the Town the means to eradicate suburban blight. We finished a Blight Study and started a Sewer Study to identify our sewer assets"--Lesko made a big announcement.

Buckle up.

Brookhaven is leading elaborate program called "Accelerate Long Island" will seek "an Innovation Ally"--a person who will "create an Innovation Index that collects and publishes data regarding an potential innovation ecosystem." Next, the Ally (He or She) will... construct a "Tech Portal... a window into the research institutions for budding entrepreneurs and seasoned venture capitalists." Meanwhile, "we need to change the cultures at Long Island's major research institutions so that their priority is commercializing their inventions."

Further plans include the creation of something called a "Regional Technology Commercialization Center," and a "Seed fund... to provide the capital startups desperately need."

The plan has been in the works for years, Lesko said: "The time for talking is over. The time for action is now. Accelerate Long Island is real, it's necessary, and it is essential for the economic future of Long Island. We are the Town that will lead Long Island toward a bright economic future in a new innovation economy."

The mayor didn't specify Long Island's 0-60 speed, so I'll check in next year to see how fast it's moving.

Meanwhile, Fairfield's First Selectman Flatto concluded his state of the village speech on a less audacious, yet more prayerful note:

"As 2011 unfolds and winter's wonderland gives way to the green of spring, I hope this may be a year of pride and much joy. May everyone remain healthy and happy. May the era of caring for each other continue forever. May the sun shine on this beautiful community and may good people keep it strong."

Can I get an amen?

David Murray is editor of Vital Speeches of the Day, a monthly collection of the best speeches in the world.