– by Cary Shuman
Jeffrey Turco president of the Winthrop Town council, made it official this week, telling the Sun-Transcript in an interview that he will be a candidate for re-election in the fall.
Turco held a well-attended campaign event four days after Christmas at the Amvets Hall where a large cross section of residents and colleagues on the council came out to support him.
“I was humbled by the support and the large number of people who came out during the holiday season to be there,” said Turco.
Turco has certainly made an impact in the town’s most powerful elected position. He cited a number of accomplishments in his first year in office, crediting his colleagues on the Council and the School Committee, where he also holds a seat.
“I’m extremely proud of all the accomplishments we’ve made and I feel we’re really doing our part to make this form of government work for Winthrop,” said Turco. “The government itself is still in its infancy – this is only the fifth year of this form of government.”
Turco said the biggest accomplishment on the school side was making full-day kindergarten in the town tuition free. Tuition used to be $2,300 per child.
“It’s free because the way the state funding formula is that if the town made it free for one year, every year thereafter, we actually get more money from the state,” he explained. “We’ll take in $2,500-$2,700 per student in the next school year from the state and that’s forever.”
In his role as council president, Turco felt it was essential to build working relationships with his colleagues on the Council “so we could get things done and insist on a level of financial accountability that the voters deserve.”
He said one major accomplishment by the Council, School Committee, and Town Manager James McKenna was the consolidation of school department offices and their relocation to Town Hall [from the E.B. Newton School].
“A year ago if you asked people whether that move was ever going to happen, they would have said no,” said Turco. “I’ve had discussions with the town manager and I hope in the next budget we’ll see the consolidation of administrative roles [the respective positions of Finance Director Michael Bertino and School Business Manager Kevin Meagher] coming as well.”
Turco was asked about his controversial proposal during the budget process to cut $240,000 from the School Department. The Council approved the measure, 8-1, but in the immediate aftermath, two long-time School Committee members, Chairwoman Pat Milano and Gus Martucci, resigned from their positions.
Turco said $130,000 of that figure was the result of seven “senior” teachers retiring and being replaced by “junior” teachers at a lesser salary. There was $80,000 in projected savings from the School Department’s decision to close the E.B. Newton School. The remaining $30,000 was a “cushion” in the utilities line item for the schools.
“Seven of my colleagues and I voted to reduce the school budget appropriation,” said Turco. “We voted, in my mind, to bring some financial accountability back to the School Department, and a lot of people in town feel that’s desperately needed.”
Turco said he was sorry to see Milano and Martucci end their service on the School Committee.
“I have great respect for both individuals,” said Turco. “They committed many years of their lives to public service and that’s admirable. It was unfortunate that they did leave. But in this business I use the pillow test – can I put my head on the pillow at night and say I did what I thought was right?”
Turco was pleased to be a part of lowering the athletic user fee that has resulted in greater participation by students in sports at the high school.
Turco concedes that his first year in office was not always smooth sailing. There was a disagreement between the council president and the town manager about an issue that was eventually discussed in a closed-door, executive session.
“We had a couple of bumps as we began the relationship, but I don’t think that’s really a surprise – it was more each of us getting used to our own style,” said Turco. “But I think we’ve become good partners working for the best interests of the town and moving forward. Jim has really taken the lead in the consolidation of office space and the reuse of the E.B. Newton School building.”
Turco gives high marks overall to McKenna.
“I think Jim is doing a very good job,” said Turco. “He’s very personable. I think the people at-large seem to be very happy with him and he’s a good, affable guy who puts the time in. You can tell he’s taken a personal liking to the community. He brings his children to events in town. You really need a manager who has a commitment to the town and understands the town and he dove in to help Winthrop move forward.”
Turco said he has a good, professional relationship with the other members of the Council.
“Even when we disagree on issues, we do it without being personally disagreeable,” said Turco. “Most of the councilors, though, understand that the same-old, same-old doesn’t cut it anymore, that we need to think outside the box and look at some of our policy decisions differently.”
Turco talked about the recent dispute with the Planning Board. The Council sought an opinion from the Planning Board about the use of the former site of the Governor Winthrop Nursing Home, but no opinion from the board was ever received.
“I remain disappointed in what I perceive as the Planning Board’s inability to make a recommendation,” said Turco. “They are the board of competence when it comes to planning issues. They’re the board with the institutional history of what special permits have been granted. They’re the board with the technical expertise on traffic impact and compatibility with neighborhoods. I think the inability to give a recommendation, up or down, was a disservice to the people of the town, but also to the Council who now will move forward and make a decision in March on the old nursing home without the benefit of that informed Planning Board discussion.”
Turco has been encouraged by residents’ use of the newly refurbished Town Landing. “We saw last summer the use of the Town Landing by residents. It’s really a wonderful asset for the town. People can go there for a family picnic, take the ferry to Boston. I’m really excited about what’s to come there as this project goes forward.”
Turco was particularly happy to see the Town Council compose a budget that allowed the town to hire two new police officers and three new firefighters.
“The major priorities in town are education and public safety, so we’ve had a couple of good developments in those areas,” said Turco.
Turco feels Speaker of the House Robert A. Deleo has done great work for the town.
“I think the Speaker has done a tremendous job for the Commonwealth and the town in extremely challenging times,” said Turco. “I think some people have unreasonable expectations and forget there are 350 other cities and towns and Winthrop’s going to get all the resources. That can’t happen, but we get our fair share because of Speaker DeLeo’s leadership. He’s been a great partner. When a town official calls his office, you always have a friendly voice on the phone.”
Residents of Winthrop since 2004, Turco and his wife, Melissa, have four children, Rosario, 5, Mary, 4, Joseph, 2, and Dominic, nine months.
“This is the town that my wife and I have made a decision that we want raise our family in,” said Turco. “People say to me, ‘all the meetings you attend, why do you do it.’’’
“I do it, not to sound corny, but you do it for your kids. It’s about what kind of community do I want my kids to grow up in. I grew up in Revere and I had a wonderful upbringing. I love the city and what it was about when I was a kid. I want my kids to be able to look back on Winthrop and say the same thing when they grow up. If I can play a small role in that, so be it.”