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In state of the village speeches in 2009, mayors told grim truths

Last year around this time mayors around the U.S. were delivering dour state-of-the-city addresses, and we rounded them up in this piece below. Will this year's sound any more optimistic? Stay tuned. —ed.

 

The State of the City, State of the Village, State of the Hamlet Address—they steadily have increased in numbers for many years, as mayors see them as a chance to brag on their accomplishments, airbrush their failures and, in some cases, even raise money in the process by selling tickets.

This year saw a huge jump in the number of such addresses across the U.S., as mayors saw an even more urgent reason to address the citizenry: to place local fortunes into the context of the global financial crisis and set up a narrative of recovery aggressive enough to inspire hope but reasonable enough to buy time before the feathers get collected and the tar goes on the fire.

In most senses, theirs are the communication challenges most leaders face at this precarious moment in history, so we thought we’d sample a number of these addresses (they’re usually given in January) in search of rhetorical tactics potentially useful in all leadership communications:

First, you have to demonstrate that you grasp reality

Around Chicago, we know that no mayor is a bigger booster than Roger Claar, the longtime boss of suburban Bolingbrook. And during his state of the village address, Claar scraped the bottom of the oil drum for positives from 2008 and reasons to look forward to 2009. But ultimately, Claar had to tell it like it is. “Nothing,” he said flatly, “is trending in a positive manner.”

“Unfortunately we’re not sure it’s the bottom,” said Reno mayor Bob Cashell in his state of the city address, “and that’s what we have to look at.”

“I can’t tell people that everything is coming up roses,” said Jim Plakas, mayor of Garden City, Mich. “This is the longest recession since World War II.”

“I wish there was a way to wave a magic wand,” said Nampa, Idaho, mayor Tom Dale, “but it’s not going to change overnight.”

All reasonable expressions of an uncertain reality.

But there’s a difference between a sober assessment and a suicide note:

“2008 has been a difficult year for all of us in Martinez and the entire country,” said Martinez, Calif., mayor Rob Schroder. “We lost Sgt.

Paul Starzyk while protecting the people of Martinez. We also lost the first lady of Martinez, my wife, Carole Schroder. The mortgage crisis has caused our economy to nosedive. Foreclosures are all around us. The stock market has reacted with a 33 percent drop in value, unemployment is increasing and businesses are failing. The state still does not have a balanced budget and will soon run out of money. Capital projects are at a standstill causing even more jobs to be lost. In fact, the governor did not even give his traditional State of the State address noting that the state is incapacitated and in a state of emergency.”

We want to get our audiences’ attention—but without sending them stampeding toward the lifeboats.

Then, you’ve got to deal some hope

Napoleon said, “A leader is a dealer in hope.” As Barack Obama illustrated through his successful presidential run, hope sells.

To a point.

Gerald Jennings, the mayor of Albany, N.Y., said in his state of the city address, “Tonight, despite the financial crisis facing our Nation and our State, and despite the strains that financial crisis has placed on our City—I believe that the state of our City continues to be very strong and, that in many respects, our future has never looked brighter.”

Did the city council, or the citizenry of Albany believe this line, that appears to strain credulity? We don’t live in Albany, but we’d say Jennings’ credibility rests on how much detail he went into in describing “many respects” that Albany’s future’s so bright, it has to wear shades.

The truth is, no leader knows much about the future these days, and our audiences know it. Leaders looking to reassure are better off talking about the relevant past, as Manchester, Conn., mayor Louis Spadaccini did in his state of the town address. “Our greatest asset is the tremendous character of our citizens and the unwavering community spirit that has led us through far more difficult times.”

That’s harder to argue with.

Perspective: think globally and act locally—not yokelly

“In short, the state of the city is good,” said John Harper, mayor of Rowlett, Texas. “Considering the state of the economy in our nation, in the state of Texas, and locally, the state of the city is especially good.”

Economically put.

Roswell, Ga., mayor Jere Wood took a similar tack—before going slightly off-track. “You can’t talk about the state of the City of Roswell without talking about the state of the economy,” he said. “Roswell has not escaped the recession but I believe we have fared better than most cities.”

For instance? Wood acknowledged that foreclosures reached an all-time high in Roswell. “In December there were 57 foreclosures in Roswell,” he acknowledged. “But there were 83 in Alpharetta.”

(!)

Pasadena Mayor Bill Bogaard took a broader view, asking his audience to indulge his quoting the following sentences from President Obama’s inaugural address:

“That we are in the midst of a crisis is now well understood. … Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age. Homes have been lost, jobs shed, businesses shuttered. Our health care is too costly, our schools fail too many, and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet.”

Having used the president’s words to set up the national context, Bogaard could place Pasadena into the picture: “Since the end of last summer, Pasadena has experienced the adverse effects of the challenges articulated by President Obama, including health care issues and our budget situation. As we address local needs, we must also keep an eye on regional and national impacts of the economic downturn.”

Yes, that’s about the size of it.

Changes, challenges and opportunities (oh my!)

It’s an old trick but it just might work: Some mayors tried to swaddle their citizens in comforting platitudes. “There are storm clouds on the horizon,” said Harper of Rowlett. “There are many challenges to forecasting those storm clouds and there will be many challenges to dealing with the issues they will bring.”

 

It was pouring challenges and opportunities in McAlester, Okla. During mayor Kevin Priddle’s state of the town address. “As a City, we have had many changes, many challenges and many opportunities in the last twelve months,” Priddle began. “This evening, I would like to review those changes, challenges and opportunities and to look forward together to the future, united for the betterment of our community.”

But whatever you say, say something

New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg gave the most mealy-mouthed state of the city address we saw this season. “We don’t know how bad the recession will be, but we know it will be bad enough,” he said. “There’s no question that the temporary state of our city is shaken. But I’m here today to tell you it’s not broken.”

Bad enough? Temporarily shaken but not broken? Bloomberg sounded a lot like the mayor of Tallmadge, Ohio, who called all the townspeople together in order to boldly proclaim, “We’re not doing bad, but we’re being cautious.”

Is he talking about Tallmadge, or about his mayoral brethren?