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Commissioner Mike Turner retires after 20 years

After 20 years as a Dakota County commissioner, the upbeat guy who abhors conflict is set to retire with a strong history of solving contentious issues.

by Laura Adelmann
THISWEEK NEWSPAPERS September 26, 2008

If reaching across the political and ideological di­vide can be considered an art form. Commissioner Mike Turner is a natural-born master.
In November, Turner's service to the county ends as he retires, leaving a legacy unlike any other.
Despite abhorring con­flict, for 20 years Turner has negotiated heated issues with a range of individuals, including constituents, county judges and business leaders. He balanced ten­sions between board mem­bers and contended for county positions to state and federal representatives. Some of the biggest problems he's tackled include working with business owners to move traffic along County Road 42 by closing accesses;
• determining if and where a waste-to-energy facility (garbage burner) should be located:
•adding subsidized housing for seniors and low-in­come workers in established neighborhoods:
• resolving tensions in­volving the judiciary and the County Board.
Despite the difficult top­ics, Turner's consistent op­timism, humor and candor won him friendships and allies of all kinds, regardless of whether they agreed with his moderately conservative viewpoints.
“I’ve never tried to make this a partisan office — it is a nonpartisan office” said Turner, who has not been challenged for the board seat in 16 years.
Reflecting on the past isn't something Turner indulges in often (“One person said, ‘Never look back because you run into fences,’” he said.), but his childhood experiences shed light on some of the de­cisions lie's made and causes he's championed.
He grew up in Bloomington in a home without plumb­ ing because his family didn’t have enough money to pay for needed repairs.
When the bread man came, he remembers hiding in the closet because they had no money to buy it.
“He'd feel sorry for us and leave bread down there for us,” Turner said. “It was very tough on us.”
Determined, he worked his way out of that past, mar­ ried wife Joyce in 1964. They would eventually have four children, all of whom are grown, successful and living in Minnesota.
Always eager to try new technology, in the 1970s, he worked with a then-cutting- edge ink-jet printer to create large-scale murals.
“There were only two ma­ chines in the world that could do it,” Turner said, enthusi­ astically adding, ”1 love the cutting-edge, the state of the art.”
In 1981, Turner opened the first one-hour photo lab in the state and continued to grow his business.
His Burnsville company, Varsity Photos Inc., still keeps him and his staff of about 20 busy photographing sporting events around the state.
Turner’s political career began when he served for six years (1972-1978) on the Dis­ trict 191 School Board and was board chair of what is now called the Community Development Agency.
Russ Streefland, a county commissioner from 1977 to 1988. later encouraged Turner to run for the District 5 seat on the County Board that he was vacating, and in 1988, Turner
won by 300 votes.
Initially, Turner said he
hoped to slay for two terms (eight years), and looking back, he seems a little amazed that 20 years have gone by.
“I'm like the guy who came for dinner and never left,” Turner laughed.

Avisionary’
Despite Turner’s self-dep­ recating sense of humor, his colleagues say the contribu­ tions he has brought to the table have had lasting impact on Dakota County.
County Commissioner Joe Ilarris, who with 28 years as a commissioner (five times elect­ ed chair), is the only board member who has served lon­ ger than Turner.
Harris said his then-new colleague garnered respect and easily transitioned to the board.
“We got along almost im­ mediately,” Harris said. “With his mild-mannered attitude, lie’s always been very good to work with. He tries to get something accomplished, and if it means collaborating with various individuals in a give- and-take type of way, he’s al­ ways willing to do that.”
Affable and diligent. Turn­ er became a trusted leader on the board, and fellow com­ missioners elected him chair six times, more than any other commissioner.
As commissioner, Turner worked for improved traf­fic flows on 1-35 and Cedar Avenue; advocated for new technologies to improve efficiencies; was instrumental in establishing the county’s court/commissioner policy committee; promoted collabo­ration with other agencies and governments; and champi­oned affordable housing when it wasn’t a popular position to take.

Community Development Director Mark Ulfers said Turner was one of the first local officials in the 1980s to see the need to begin build­ ing senior housing in Dakota County.
“A lot of people thought we were crazy to even think about building senior housing in Dakota County,” he said. “But Mike was one of our biggest supporters. He could see how the county was going to change and evolve and why it was needed. I guess you’d call him a visionary.”
A great guv’
County Board Chair Nan­cy Schouweiler described Turner as “a great guy,” easily rolling off a list of traits she sees in him.
“I think he's a man of integrity,” she said. “He’s very honest and reasonable. He's always open to listening to other opinions and respectful > of others. He's easy to work with.”
Those characteristics have obviously endeared him to his constituency, several of whom recently greeted him during a meeting at a Burnsville restau­rant.
“He’s very warm. He has a great personality,’’Schouweiler said, adding, “I’m going to miss him.”
She said Turner helped create a strong camaraderie among board members and with county staff. She said the good-natured teasing helped her feel more comfortable when she first was elected to the board.
Some of the teasing has be­ come an ongoing joke.

For example, after Turner spilled his coffee repeatedly, County Administrator Brandt Richardson presented Turner with a tippy-cup.
Turner wouldn’t reveal his farewell plans, but laughed and would only say, “The time's coming; paybacks are hell. I’ve got plans and I’m go­ ing to go out with a flourish.”

Future plans
For a guy who’s planning retirement, Turner doesn’t talk much about slowing down.
Although he acknowledges he’ll miss the decision-mak­ing, seeing through projects he’s dedicated himself to, and people he’s worked with, he is forward focused.

Turner said he plans on spending more time with fam­ily, traveling with Joyce and yet will continue building his business.
As for the District 5 com­missioner seat he vacates, voters will decide between Burnsville Planning Commis­sion member Vicki Turner, wife of Turner's nephew, and Burnsville City Council Mem­ber Liz Workman as his re­placement.
Turner said county govern­ment is a lot different from city government because each commissioner represents dif­ferent constituents.
“Therefore, you have to learn to compromise,” he said. “You have to respect other people’s differences. Try to get politics out of it.”

Laura Adelmann is at dceditor@frontiernet.net.

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