Don Turner balances town manager role with Montpelier

Don Turner

Town manager and House minority leader Don Turner shuffles through papers in his Bombardier Rd. office on Monday. (PHOTO: COURTNEY LAMDIN)

Mondays are busy for town manager Don Turner.

They’re his singular day off from his four-day-a-week commitment in Montpelier as the Vermont House minority leader, a post he’s held for seven years.

This Monday was no different.

At 9:30 a.m., retired racecar driver and local celebrity Beaver Dragon was in the town manager’s office, updating Turner on the road crew’s plowing job. On his way out the door, he asked how things were going at the state house.

“It was a long three days,” Turner said.

Conversation quickly turned to the House’s passage of H.511, the marijuana legalization bill, a measure Turner – and Dragon, judging from his subsequent groan – opposed.

While Turner debated the bill in the House chamber last Thursday, the town of Milton announced the finalist for its next police chief.

The irony isn’t lost on Turner, who stopped by the station that night to tell presumed Chief Stephen Laroche he’d done everything he could to stop the bill from passing.

It’s one example of the dovetailing roles of town manager and legislator, a balancing act Turner is committed to maintain for at least a year, until the end of his elected term.

So far, he said, it’s going well, despite the 14.5-hour workdays wearing both hats sometimes requires. Turner is also fire and rescue chief (until next Monday, that is), a realtor and housing developer.

As such, Turner has had practice being multiple places at once, if not in body then in spirit – or, more accurately, by telephone, which buzzed nearly every five minutes during a 90-minute meeting with the Independent.

He generally arrives at the town offices at 6:30 a.m., leaving two hours later to be on the House floor by 9:30. After an eight-hour day, he’ll trek back to Milton and finish his day where he started, finally leaving for home around 9 p.m.

He’ll also work Saturdays and only plans to appoint an acting town manager if he’s out of state on vacations he’ll undoubtedly treasure.

Selectboard chairman Darren Adams isn’t concerned. The board appointed Turner knowing he’d essentially be out of the office Tuesday through Friday, and Adams sees the daily Montpelier trips as furthering Milton’s interests.

“It’s only been one week since they’ve been back in session, but most afternoons he’s back quite early and has been available by phone and email,” Adams said. “He said going into this that if he’s needed here, he’s going to stop what he’s doing and come back.”

Turner said some town staff, too, see his role as advantageous, a direct line to the goings-on in state government. Many engage in conversation about upcoming bills and Turner’s votes on them. Some agree, others don’t, but to Turner, it’s all good.

The dual positions equip him with a unique lens. Turner immediately sees how legislation impacts a municipality, particularly when lawmakers pass dreaded unfunded mandates.

Turner counts the marijuana bill among them.

“I know the impact as we’re preparing a budget year,” he said. “I can do a good job representing that.”

Indeed, Turner tried. Before the final vote last Thursday, Turner introduced one of several amendments to the pot bill. Generally summarized as a “tax-and-regulate” effort, the amendment would have appropriated $1.5 million for prevention education, a tax module and staffing.

Turner also envisioned local control, allowing municipalities to form a marijuana board to issue vendor permits, much like a liquor board, and to issue civil tickets for smoking pot in public, among other measures.

It failed 32 to 114.

Since it was a holdover from June’s veto session, H.511’s passage was inevitable, Turner said, so he tried to “do it right.”

The bill allows Vermonters 21 or older to possess up to an ounce of weed, four immature plants and two mature plants starting in July. Gov. Phil Scott has pledged his support.

Still, Turner said he wouldn’t be surprised if another bill surfaced this session to implement some of his suggestions. He’d be happy to sponsor it but expects Democrats might introduce it themselves.

In the meantime, Turner has pledged to fulfill duties in Milton and Montpelier. He expects it will go smoother than the two months he served as interim town manager last March. Then, it was only Turner and former finance director Sarah Macy at the helm, essentially leaving her in charge when he was gone.

Now, Turner has an entire team of department heads assembled, a veritable cabinet to include human resources and administration, public safety, finance and public works.

Is the arrangement sustainable, should Turner decide to run for another two-year term at the state house?

“It’s hard to tell right now. Right now we have such a new team here,” he said.

“I hope we make it through the session and I can have a conversation with the selectboard and see maybe this is working well, maybe not,” he said. “I’ve also said publicly I’m not going to run, so we’ll see.”

His caginess on that topic aside, Turner says he loves being more accessible and having two positions with the same goal: making a difference in people’s lives.

And for now, that means Mondays are busy. But some are also productive.

Three weeks ago, Beaver Dragon called Turner at 7 a.m., “madder than heck” about the plowing job on his road. Last Monday, after Turner promised Dragon conditions would improve, Dragon’s tone had changed.

“Today he’s saying they’re doing a good job,” Turner said. “I don’t know how long [this situation is] sustainable, but I know that I live for that, to say, ‘Hey, you guys are getting better.’ We’re working hard as a team, and that’s very rewarding.”

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to reflect the Senate has approved H.511, the recreational marijuana bill.

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