State-of-the-town speeches exploded during the housing boom, when mayors could simply describe the explosive growth in the tax base and bask in the glow. After everything went to hell in 2008, most mayors would probably have preferred to skip the speech, but as that would have looked bad, they stood up and told the ugly truth. "Nothing," said Bolingbrook mayor Roger Claar in early 2010, "is trending in positive manner."
In this winter's comme ci, comme ça climate, mayors from Baltimore to Biloxi, from Wichita, Kan. to Novato, Calif. found themselves describing purgatory.
And the speeches they gave constitute a speechwriting guide for the state-of-the-town address.
1. Open on a positive note, mouthing unsupportable-and-so-also-unassailable platitudes.
"2011 was not Canton's finest year," were the first words uttered by Gene Hobgood, mayor of the Ohio town. "The year was dominated in the media by embarrassing water billing problems and of course the tragic murder of an innocent child."
That, ladies and gentleman, is exactly how not to start a state-of-the-town speech.
No, you say something like what Biloxi Mayor A.J. Holloway said: "The state of our city is coming into its own."
See? No one can argue with that.
"The Henderson you see today is more refined," Mayor Andy Hafen told the citizens of the Nevada town. "It is leaner; it is stronger and strategically prepared to meet the challenges of the future."
Are you hearing this, Hobgood?
"We are NOT one of the 100 municipalities across the country whose mayors contemplated bankruptcy at the beginning of last year," said mayor Carl Brewer. "We are Wichita! A city that has been thinking smarter, proactively and successfully planning for our new economic reality."
Now that's the kind of empty rhetoric that these uncertain times call for.
2. List your accomplishments, no matter how boring; don't stop till you see the whites of their eyes, which are rolling back in their heads.
First, you soften them up with statistics.
"Starting in this coming budget year, the average owner-occupied home valued at $200,000 will see a $40 cut in property taxes right away," said Baltimore mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. "The following year, that will increase to $200 and ramp up to a $400 cut by 2020."
Two hundred thousand, forty, two hundred, four hundred, twenty-twenty -- girl, you need to get out a chalkboard!
"When compared to all other cities and villages in New York State, last year Lynbrook reached 44 percent of its constitutional tax limit and has exhausted only 15 percent of its debt limit -- that's for bonding," Mayor William Hendrick said. "That makes Lynbrook, USA a relatively low-taxed, low-debt community."
That's some Martin Luther King stuff right there.
And if you think that's inspiring: Brookhaven, Long Island town supervisor Mark Lesko rattled off some mind-numbing stats about how many crumbling buildings have been torn down, and then added with a wink:
"I think it's fair to say that last year was a bad year for blight in Brookhaven."
3. Position yourself as a beleaguered hero, facing challenges that only you can conquer.
In his state-of-the-town speech, Novato, Calif. city manager Michael S. Frank read what he said his 10-year-old daughter wanted him to say:
Now I know everybody has great ideas for the City and everybody should know that I try my best to fulfill your expectations, but I can't please all of you. All of your ideas for the City's improvement are great, but you each have different opinions of what your ideal city would be and I hope that you keep in mind what I just said before you stand up to say a complaint or an idea and think about whether anyone is accomplishing this feat.
"While she's looking at this through the lens of a child's mind," Frank said, "She is asking the reader to give her father the benefit of the doubt."
And you need the benefit of the doubt, because the challenges you face are daunting.
Or they would be, if you weren't Super Mayor.
A mere mortal might say that sagging tax rates and a $30 million dollar revenue deficit could be potentially devastating to a town like Henderson, Nev. But to Mayor Andy Hafen? Just "bumps in the road." And "when we do encounter those 'bumps,' we work hard to make them right, ... There is so much good that goes on here every day and so many positive things happening, we want people to know about it."
And the band played on.
4. Paint a picture of hope -- bold, yet fuzzy -- and then propose an idea so feeble that it makes people giddy.
Learn to talk like mayor Dwight C. Jones: "We're playing on a great stage, ladies and gentlemen, here in Richmond, Virginia! And we've got to work harmoniously together in the common interest, with an unselfish purpose. If we do that, nothing will be too large for us to accomplish."
"I am honored to stand before you at a time of remarkable change in Buffalo," said mayor Byron Brown. "We accomplished big things in 2011. We have even bigger plans for this year. I believe strongly that Buffalo is the economic engine for our region, bringing together the right people, in the right place at the right time."
Nevertheless, all those people in Buffalo are out of work at the moment.
"That's why today I am issuing a challenge to all companies in the Buffalo area to hire at least one new full-time Buffalo resident in 2012," said Mayor Brown. "Imagine if Erie County's 22,000 companies each hired just one full-time Buffalo resident. That's 22,000 new jobs for Buffalo residents."
5. Wrap up by publically asking God for a political favor. (This way, the bastards won't be able to say you didn't try.)
"God bless you, and God bless Baltimore."
"God bless you, and God bless Biloxi."
"God bless Brookhaven."
"God bless you. God bless America and God bless Wichita."
And thank God, for leadership like this!
David Murray is editor of Vital Speeches of the Day, a monthly collection of the world's best speeches.
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