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Judging the State of the Union, One Town at a Time

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You know President Obama's State of the Union speech tonight will be all challenges and opportunities and hopes and dreams.

While presidents pontificate, mayors -- in their annual state of the village speeches at country clubs, chambers of commerce and public libraries -- well, they pontificate too.

But they do so much more vividly.

For the town of Lexington, S.C., 2012 was "a phenomenal year," according to Mayor Randy Halfacre. "I believe it will go down as the best in our 152-year history."

Last year was also a good year in Fontana, Calif. But this year? "We are going to have a lucky year in 2013," said mayor Acquanetta Warren, who urged the crowd of 200 to "Think big." And the crowd shouted back, "Act big!"

Mayors with plainer names made humbler claims. Mayor Ken Wright, of Columbus Grove, Ohio, was careful to balance reasons for optimism -- which included the completion of phase one of the town's sewer project -- with "concerns for the future." Namely, "Phase two of the sewer project."

Some towns are simultaneously cutting services and spending more to lure visitors, via programs like the "shop in Burr Ridge campaign" touted by Bob Sodikoff, the mayor of that Illinois town.

Taos, N.M. is cutting funding for nonprofits and not filling positions lost through attrition. "That's the environment that we're in," said Mayor Darren Córdova. Taos village workers doing more with less can only hope that village marketers, whose budget is increasing by $530,000, do more with more.

Speaking of tourism: In historic Savannah, Ga., the bad news is that "there are too many shootings on our streets," according to Mayor Edna Jackson. The good news is, "99 percent of the time it is thugs on thugs. I've got little sympathy for them."

Some mayors used their bully pulpit to send messages beyond the town's borders. Mayor Ronnie Williams declared that unnamed "other elected bodies" could learn "a thing or two" from the City Council of Garner, N.C., "about how to put aside ideologies and personal agendas and all the rest of those impediments to achieve things that benefit all citizens."

Napoleon said a leader is a dealer in hope. "The public needs to realize that every time you buy something online, you are putting a nail in the coffin of our brick and mortar storefronts," said Roger Claar, mayor of Bolingbrook, Ill. "Shopping online is the way of the future, it is convenient. Yes, I do it, too. But we need to find a way to consistently bring sales tax back to Bolingbrook."

A state-of-the-village speech is a good occasion to clear the air. Vernon, N.J. Mayor Victor J. Marotta acknowledged the turd in last year's punch bowl: He asked voters to approve a $20,000 increase in his salary and $50,000 more in benefits. Eighty-seven percent voted against-- "one of the most bigger disappointments that I had during the 2012 election," Marotta allowed.

What all the mayors had all had in common was a strong view that their town was at least a lot better off than other towns.

"I would put our record through the Great Recession with up with any other city in America," said Tupelo, Miss. Mayor Jack Reed.

"Considering the economic plight of so many downtowns in New Jersey," said Morristown mayor Tim Dougherty, "we are in great shape."

"Southington [Conn.] is in great shape compared to other municipalities around us," said Council Chairman John Dobbins.

"In general, we are positioned better than many other cities that have been highlighted in the news in recent months," said La Verne, Calif. Mayor Don Kendrick.

And even if your town isn't putting its neighbors to economic shame, cutting its budget drastically, marketing itself robustly, or setting an example of bipartisan civility to inspire the nation -- well, maybe it can at the very least conduct its state of the village address in a more tasteful manner.

"There wasn't the usual pomp and circumstance that 'State of the City' addresses generate elsewhere such as in our neighboring communities of Boston and Revere," The Winthrop (Mass.) Transcript reported this year. "The way [Town Council] President [Peter] Gill just matter-of-factly jumped into such an important address ... speaks well of the humble and low-key approach that he has adopted in his first year as council president."

A humble and low-key approach from which maybe some other elected presidents could learn a thing or two.

David Murray is editor of Vital Speeches of the Day, a monthly collection of the best speeches in the world. He also blogs about the writing life at Writing Boots.