Florida Keys News
Friday, August 23, 2013
Island honors one of its own
Carmen Turner recalls her political history as city leader

Inside Old City Hall the other night, Carmen Turner took a few moments amid the pre-meeting chatter and glad-handing to sit in the chair that was her place on the City Commission for a decade.

From that spot in 2003, she voted against a panhandling ban directed at the homeless, calling shortsighted a new law introduced by then-Commissioner Tom Oosterhoudt.

"This is simply the wrong thing to do," Turner was quoted in an Associated Press story that ran statewide.

She pushed for better policing in Bahama Village and preventative programs for kids to keep them out of the system.

During the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday in 2004, she asked Key West "to stop and think that, under our skin, we are all the same."

Turner, 47, who lives with her rescued poodle-mix, Henry Flagler, and is supervisor of the local Social Security Administration office, said serving the public comes with responsibility, and criticism.

"The nail that sticks out gets hammered," Turner said. "You've got to grow skin thick enough to deal with what happens, the fallout. That kind of became my little mantra. I learned not to be afraid and say what needed to be said."

Turner said she's done running for office and, for now, serving on volunteer city panels.

From 1995 to 2005, Commissioner Turner weighed in on issues still pressing to the island, such as homelessness and neighborhood blight.

"Sometimes I read the newspaper and I think, wow, there is nothing new under the sun," said Turner. "We're always trying to work on these issues. We're always trying to minimize the impact. We're always working, hopefully, toward the same goal."

On Tuesday night, the commission honored Turner, a 1984 Key West High School graduate who this summer stepped down as chairwoman and a founding member of the Bahama Village Redevelopment Advisory Committee.

City Commissioner Clayton Lopez, who in 2005 succeeded Turner as District 6's elected voice for Bahama Village, sponsored the commendation.

"I have a passion for public service, and I want to thank you, Commissioner Lopez, for the appointment that allowed me to continue that," Turner said, accepting a plaque from the city.

She was treated to a hometown hero's welcome, having turned in her political role to return to private citizenry. Turner also recently started Just the Sweetest Thing, a dessert-to-order business she is getting off the ground.

"I brought you into the process, remember that?" City Commissioner Jimmy Weekley asked Turner. "There was a vacancy on the commission and I asked the governor to appoint you. You were working at the Supervisor of Elections Office at the time."

In 1995, the governor appointed Turner, assistant supervisor of elections, to the commission seat vacated by Emory Major, who was removed from office and later indicted. Turner won two re-elections.

Commissioner Mark Rossi was next Tuesday night, reminding everyone that he and Weekley had served on the dais with Turner.

"And we loved it, I want you to know," Rossi said.

The commendation recognized Turner for "outstanding and historic service on the Key West City Commission and commitment to alleviate blight within the Bahama Village Community Redevelopment Area through the responsible and thoughtful leadership as chair for the appropriation of the Tax Increment Fund."

Turner spent the past year chairing the volunteer committee, which divvied up $850,000 in property-tax money collected in the neighborhood for projects and preservation.

Commissioners had the final say, but the committee did the grunt work in a year when the fund was uncommonly high.

She minced no words over the needed repairs at Frederick Douglass Gym, a faltering building without a kitchen or bathroom these days.

"With chunks of concrete falling, we're talking about the safety of our kids, and we can't shortchange that project," Turner said in January.

The majority black neighborhood of Bahama Village deserves its landmark building restored, Turner said, comparing the rehab to the Glynn Archer School building, which the city is turning into a grand City Hall.

"It needs every dollar," Turner said of the gym. "They've already done similar work for [Glynn Archer]."

Although the commendation handed to Turner on Tuesday night was for her service on a voluntary board this year, the island is filled with people who know Turner as a lifelong Key West advocate.

"When she was in those leadership roles, she wasn't a token," said Billy Davis, a 15-year Key Wester who runs the nonprofit A Positive Step. "Not even at all. If she didn't agree, if she had her own opinion. I wouldn't classify her as a 'woman' or 'black,' just an independent strong thinker."

Davis pointed out Turner's contributions to the city belie her age.

"She's still young," Davis said.

Turner graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in public relations and later earned a master's in business management from Troy State University.

A third-generation Conch, Turner's great-grandfather arrived in Key West from the Bahamas in 1897.

She grew up the oldest of two girls, raised by a mother who recently retired from hospital administration and a stepfather who was a shrimper and is now a drywall contractor.

Lopez appointed her to the Bahama Village Redevelopment Advisory Committee a few years ago.

In 2004, Turner urged Lopez to run for the commission seat she was leaving, the same seat to which he was re-elected without opposition on Aug. 16.

The volunteer Bahama Village Redevelopment panel recommends to the commission how to spend the annual Tax Increment Fund (TIF) money, property taxes that stay in the neighborhood to repair and preserve programs and buildings.

"A group of people that worked together and did what it took to get the job done," Turner said Tuesday of her colleagues on the committee.

Turner thanked Lopez and lauded city staff in her brief thank-you speech.

"I'm always completely amazed by the dedication and the ingenuity," she said of staff. "Thank you, thank you all."

On Tuesday, the hall at 510 Greene St. was unusually crowded, what with the agenda about to produce decisions to make two-way traffic on North Roosevelt Boulevard come October and a 50-year-old trailer park obsolete to make way for condos.

So when Turner rose for the commendation presentation, the hall burst with a downpour of applause.

"I certainly could not fill her shoes," Lopez said from the dais. "First of all, I do not like pumps. But certainly, Commissioner Turner and I have a long history of respect and admiration for each other. I can think of no one who deserves such an award more."

City leadership in Key West can bring the sacred and the ridiculous to light, in a community that prides itself as progressive and unafraid to comment on national issues.

Turner introduced a resolution, which passed Feb. 4, 2003, demanding a diplomatic approach to the nation's conflict with Iraq instead of war, weeks before U.S. troops invaded the country.

And Turner also served on the dais when locals were up in arms over the wild chicken population scratching in yards across the island.

"I want to make sure here that our goal is not to rid the island of chickens," said then-commissioner Turner, according to a 2004 St. Petersburg Times story. "It is part of our island charm."

Turner, though, never shied away from setting the record straight.

When Norma Jean Sawyer fell into criminal scrutiny for fraud and mismanagement of the Bahama Conch Community Land Trust, Turner wouldn't remain quiet as the race card turned from Sawyer's defense.

Sawyer, who is black, claimed that Turner opposed any background check of her, deciding it was racist.

Turner responded in kind.

"Well I am not her life raft," Turner wrote in a letter to The Citizen that ran Dec. 29, 2009. "I withdrew my support from Ms. Sawyer years ago, and would appreciate her not trying to drag me into her current mess. She dug herself into this hole -- she needs to dig herself out."

Last year, a judge sentenced Sawyer to two years in prison for scheming to defraud more than $50,000 as head of a nonprofit.

Turner was touched by the Tuesday night commendation and the accolades from the dais.

"It was actually kind of surreal," Turner said. "It almost felt like it was a retirement party. I thought, I'm too young to be retired."


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