Exit Evokes Plaudits for Dennis Legislator

By Gina Curreri
BU News Service

BOSTON — State Rep. Cleon Turner sat at a roundtable with more than a dozen other lawmakers and legislative aides as he carefully listened to another state representative’s description of a bill regarding local speed limits in heavily settled areas.

Turner began these “calendar sessions” earlier this year to help other legislators stay informed. He has since developed a reputation on Beacon Hill as a well-liked, go-to guy whom many of his colleagues consult.

“I think one of the qualities I have that many legislators don’t seem to have is that I insist on knowing what I’m voting on,” said Turner, a Democrat from Dennis, back in his office. “I was always, right from the beginning, adamant on reading what was on the calendar and what we were voting on in session.”

Turner’s known as a humble legislator who marches to his own beat, sticking to his principles. He’s enjoyed a closet-size office without complaints on the fifth floor for 10 years. Now, after five terms in the Legislature, he will step off the field in January 2015. He’ll be 69 when he retires.

“That sounds like a good age to retire to me,” he said.

On Wednesday, Turner made his plans official in a prepared statement. He said that after 10 years on Beacon Hill, he’s ready for a relaxing retirement and hopes to travel the country with his wife.

When the Legislature is in session, he’s up around 4:30 a.m., filling in his daily crossword puzzle before carpooling to Boston with state Sen. Dan Wolf, D-Harwich. In between researching legislation at home, he maintains a vegetable and flower garden, does woodwork and cooks from his own recipes.

House colleagues say they will miss his calm manner and guidance in dissecting bills.

“He is not someone who puts himself up on a podium. Very much to the contrary; I think he’s a humble public servant,” said fellow state Rep. Brian Mannal, D-Barnstable. “But people constantly pick his brain to find out his methods in becoming so well-prepared. Many, certainly I, aim to emulate his style.”

On the House floor, Turner brings with him a printout of any bill to be voted on and any accompanying legislation with notes in the margins.

“Cleon’s shown it’s possible to make time to do this, to be so informed,” Mannal said.

Rep. Denise Andrews, D-Orange, said although Turner wouldn’t say it about himself, he’s among what she considers to be the top third of her House colleagues.

“He really understands that democracy should be a consensus process, not a subgroup of leaders who decide what we’re doing,” Andrews said.

Turner’s a “gentleman in every respect” and goes out of his way to do what’s right, Mannal said.

Turner wrote a letter to the editor at the Barnstable Patriot on Mannal’s behalf to set the record straight after Mannal came under fire in a Boston Herald article. Mannal said the article had misconstrued details of his bill that would require the state’s Sex Offender Registry Board to inform offenders of their right to counsel in reclassification hearings.

Turner “stepped into a firestorm when he didn’t need to but saw I was getting the crap kicked out of me on a pack of lies,” Mannal said. “Here’s someone who won’t just sit by idly and allow mistruths to be told as truths.”

The 1st Barnstable District, which runs from eastern Barnstable to the western half of Brewster, has been Turner’s home for 37 years. He intends to stay in Dennis, where he’s had a long career of service.

Since 1976, he has served Dennis as a police officer, assessor and chairman of both the Board of Selectmen and the Housing Authority.

“My public service career kicked off in Dennis. I’ve continued to work with, and for, those same constituents as a Cape legislator here at the Statehouse,” he said.

Turner ran unopposed in the past two elections. Previously he beat Republicans Dick Neitz twice and Patrick Foran once.

Looking ahead, Brewster Selectman Ben deRuyter, a Democrat, and Cummaquid Republican Peter Eastman, owner of Howard Boats, organized in November to campaign for Turner’s seat. Yarmouth Democrat Alexander Morash and retired state police Sgt. Tim Whelan, a Brewster Republican, formed committees this month.

“Obviously I’d like to see a Democrat win,” Turner said. “But I know people from both sides of the aisle will run.”

Wayne Bergeron, who served with Turner on the Board of Selectmen in the early 1990s, said Turner’s replacement will need to be willing to “put the time in,” as Turner did.

Bergeron described Turner as one of the most fair-minded people he’s met in political circles.

“You could disagree with him, and he could disagree with you, but it was always agreeably, if you will,” Bergeron said. “Whoever might replace him, Republican, Democrat or independent, will need the ability to listen and meet with the other side at some point in terms of getting things done.”

Turner has been a long supporter of regional schools.

In his first term in 2005, he created and led the Regional School Caucus that last session helped link regional school transportation funding to Chapter 70 money.

Legislators increased funding for state-mandated transportation services at regional schools such as Nauset and Dennis-Yarmouth regional high schools by $2 million in 2013.

He’s also passionate about the maintenance of private roads, calling legislation he’s refiled each session his “pet bill.”

Now, residents are expected to pay to maintain private roads, but it’s not clear how that’s enforced.

If his bill passes, property owners would vote on what maintenance to support, whether paving, signs or landscaping.

The idea came after he served as legal counsel to a homeowners association in Sandwich. He went to court against a resident who refused to pay for road maintenance.

“It’s hard to convince city folks who say, ‘Is this a real problem?’ that this is important to rural communities,” Turner said of his bill, which has not progressed to a House vote.

In his characteristically frank style, Turner said much of serving on the Legislature involves working with the slow-moving system and “hoping to get something done sooner or later.”

“He’s been very thorough with the citizens of Dennis, talking to them, explaining to them,” said Heidi Schadt, vice chairman of the Dennis Board of Selectmen. “He always kept in contact with us here and worked in our best interest.”

Turner’s wife, Meg Hill, said one of his best qualities is his willingness to be up front with people, both on the job and off.

“With Cleon, what you see is what you get. I think people have found his ability to tell it how it really is refreshing,” said Hill, head librarian at the Barnstable Law Library.

She also volunteered another little-known detail about her husband: He’s a romantic, treating the entire month of February as Valentine’s Day.

“I get into my car and there will be a card on my steering wheel,” Hill said. “When I wake up and get to the bathroom, he will have hung heart stickers on the mirror.”

Hill said she’ll be happy to finally have her husband home for more than a day.

“We don’t have flashy cars and a big house,” Hill said. “We just enjoy simple things. I think that’s really what we’ll enjoy when we retire.”

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