In March 1977, the Long Island Press, where Vito Turso had worked for more than a decade starting as a copyboy, closed its doors. Eight months would pass before he found a job with American Metal Market, a trade publication dealing with the metals industry, aided by the two years in which he studied metallurgy at Brooklyn Tech High School.
Three weeks later, he was out the door for a chance to work for another city daily, in this case the brand-new The Trib, which “was gonna be a great, more-conservative tabloid,” he recalled Oct. 31, marking the day with a black shirt and glowing orange tie.
Gone Before the Strike
But in a market where Rupert Murdoch had spent the previous year conspicuously moving The Post in that direction, The Trib had trouble finding an audience. By early 1978, Mr. Turso said, “There were rumors that The Post, Daily News and Times were about to strike,” but that didn’t happen until the summer, three months after the publisher of The Trib cashed in his chips.
During its brief life, Mr. Turso worked as a general-assignment reporter who came to specialize in covering blizzards because there were so many of them that January and February, which brought him into frequent contact with Sanitation Commissioner Tony Vaccarello, a holdover from the administration of Mayor Abe Beame. Ed Koch was in the process of filling many vacancies after he got to City Hall at the start of that year, and his Press Secretary, Maureen Connelly, asked Mr. Turso after The Trib folded what his plans were and would he be interested in taking a public-relations job with the administration.
Mr. Turso recalled, “I said ‘I hate those guys. They don’t get back to you, they lie to you.’"
Ms. Connelly responded with a suggestion and a question. “Well, change that,” she said of his bad impression of government flacks, then asked, “What’s your alternative?”
“Unemployment,” he responded. And having spent some time without a job in between working for two newspapers that went out of business slightly more than a year apart, taking a job with the Sanitation Department had a certain appeal. It wasn’t as if an agency responsible for collecting garbage and clearing the streets of snow was going to run out of customers anytime soon.
This didn’t mean Mr. Turso was walking into an ideal situation as the new spokesman for the Sanitation Department. Toward the end of the Beame administration, he recalled, Mr. Vaccarello in frustration at the accumulated garbage that was part of the city landscape “had called New Yorkers ‘a bunch of slobs.’ We had some reputation-repair to do.”
The department had performed strongly in response to the series of snowstorms, so Mr. Vaccarello’s standing was good enough “to walk out on his own” in September 1978, Mr. Turso said. That meant getting used to a new boss, Norman Steisel, while still learning the ropes of being a government spokesman.
His first day in that role, he said, had been April 24, 1978, and that afternoon a reporter from “a certain Staten Island broadsheet” called to ask what the department was doing to prevent illegal dumping in the borough. Mr. Turso said, among other things, that he would get back to the reporter, then discovered that “the folks who could get me the information had already left for the day.”
The following morning, he opened that Staten Island broadsheet to find a story on the dumping that quoted “the department’s new spokesman” as saying that “I knew nothing about illegal dumping.”
‘A Great Lesson’
“It was a great PR 101 lesson,” Mr. Turso said: always get back to reporters, even if it’s just to tell them that you won’t be able to give them a substantive answer by the end of the day.
As he sat in his office at the Department of Sanitation on his next-to-last day in a job that he performed for nearly 30 years, with a couple of unplanned detours in the middle of his tenure, Mr. Turso said regarding his initial negative perception of government public-relations operatives, “I would like to think that in a small way as Press Secretary I helped to change that.”
Those reporters who dealt with him would agree with that assessment, as he became an important conduit who could dispense information clearly and with a breezy style that occasionally featured referring to high-level department officials with nicknames like “Vinnie the Whit.”
Along the way, Mr. Turso helped rebuild morale in the department that had taken a beating during the mid-1970s fiscal crisis that resulted in deteriorating working conditions. Mr. Koch early in Mr. Steisel’s tenure gave the Sanitation Commissioner an “F” when asked to grade some of his key aides, but Mr. Turso said, “He got criticized for a number of things that probably weren’t his fault.”
Among them, he continued, “at one point half the trucks weren’t working,” because the fleet had grown old and the department had been forced to trim its repair staff due to severe budget cuts at the time when the city came perilously close to declaring bankruptcy.
Baby, It’s Cold Inside
Late in 1979, Mr. Turso recalled, the Mayor decided to visit sanitation workers who were preparing for a snowstorm in the Manhattan 1 garage at the intersection of West and Canal Sts. Noticing a mechanic working on the street beneath a truck to get it in shape to have a snowplow attached, Mr. Koch asked him why he wasn’t doing the work inside the garage. The mechanic replied, Mr. Turso recalled, “Mayor, with all due respect, it’s warmer here than it is inside the building.”
Mr. Koch asked Mr. Steisel what could be done, given the city’s still-limited resources, to address the situation. The Sanitation Commissioner, Mr. Turso noted, had previously held a top job in the Mayor’s Office of Management and Budget, and “had an uncanny knack for knowing where dollars might be found.” Within a few weeks, he said, the city had come up with $35 million to rehab garages throughout the five boroughs to make them places where employees were more comfortable working.
It was, Mr. Turso continued, a matter of “investing in a department that was critical, vital, essential but had been ignored.”
In his dealings with reporters, he tried to wean them off the lazy habit of referring to the workers as garbagemen, which deeply bothered the rank and file. Referring to the legendary former president of the Uniformed Sanitationmen’s Association, Mr. Turso remarked, “John DeLury was the one who first said ‘don’t call them what they handle.’ These are hard-working civil servants who just happen to deal with 10,000 tons of garbage a day. They also clear the streets and they plow: in wintertime, they are the first of the first-responders.”
Key Role During ‘Sandy’
And sometimes those skills come into play in other seasons, as with the response to Superstorm Sandy in October 2012. “During Sandy, we were the first boots on the ground in parts of the city,” among them Staten Island, southern Brooklyn and the Rockaways.” Referring to that portion of Queens, Mr. Turso said, “A lot of the workers lived out there, and they had to leave their flooded homes to go to work, and sometimes had to sleep in the garages.” Their work in salvaging some of the mementoes damaged by the flooding in people’s homes earned them lasting gratitude from residents, he said, adding, “It was also nice to get the recognition from public officials.”
Different kinds of storms disrupted Mr. Turso’s career beginning in 1990. On Oct. 1 that year, he was transferred from Sanitation to the Correction Department. Albert Scardino, the Press Secretary for Mayor David Dinkins, who had taken office nine months earlier, offered him the job and Mr. Turso, alluding to the fact that Mr. Steisel was the new administration’s First Deputy Mayor, responded, “Albert, I don’t want to do this just because it’s what Norman wants me to do.”
He said Mr. Scardino told him, “It’s not what Norman wants; it’s what the Mayor needs you to do.”
Mr. Turso immediately understood: less than two months earlier, after a large disturbance by inmates in which numerous correction officers were injured, prompting employees to respond with excessive force in some cases, Correction Commissioner Allyn Sielaff had told reporters at a City Hall press conference, “Busted heads, other than where they were deserved, will not be tolerated.” His appearing to condone the force by officers drew outrage in some quarters and was a particular embarrassment because Mr. Dinkins and Mr. Sielaff had been expected to bring reforms to the city jail system.
Cooled Things Down
Mr. Turso’s ability to defuse controversies made him an obvious choice to avoid repetition by top Correction officials of that kind of belligerent comment. For a while he continued to field calls involving the Sanitation Department as well, creating an unusual situation in which one day he was quoted in separate stories as a spokesman for both agencies.
He spent four years at the Correction Department and generally liked the job, saying, “I’d never been saluted before I got there.”
In late 1994, Rudy Giuliani’s first year as Mayor, Mr. Turso was transferred over to the Department of Environmental Protection, where the Commissioner was Marilyn Gelber, a Dinkins holdover. “We hit it off,” he said of his dealings with her, but neither stuck around for long.
In February 1995, Mr. Turso was among the spokesmen for four city agencies who were fired within the same week. The circumstances were mysterious—even to him, he said—and reporters were baffled that he and another veteran public-relations official in particular were known for serving in both Republican and Democratic mayoral administrations without ever indicating political leanings were among the casualties. That led to speculation that they were fired because Mr. Giuliani was sending a message to all the city’s spokespersons that they were not to provide reporters with basic facts but rather the administration’s spin on those facts.
Didn’t Come From Rudy?
Mr. Turso said it was never clear to him if that was the reason for his dismissal, and even if it came at Mr. Giuliani’s behest or was the decision of someone who worked under him. Two weeks later, he said, having quickly found a job with the pr firm of Dan Klores, who had just started a government-relations division, he encountered the Mayor at an event for Modell’s “and he came up to me and hugged me and shook my hand.”
While working for Mr. Klores, he was retained by Transport Workers Union Local 100 and the Public Employees Federation for work on special projects, and did work for the Writers Guild of America. In 1999, the Klores firm backed the candidacy of Pat Lynch for president of what was then the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association; when Mr. Lynch won, Mr. Turso was retained as an outside public-relations consultant. He also took charge of a successful campaign for a book by former U.S. Sen. Al D’Amato, “Power, Pasta and Politics.”
During the 2001 election, when then-Public Advocate Mark Green emerged as the heavy favorite to succeed Mr. Giuliani, his former spokesman, Joe DePlasco was talked up as returning to that role after working as a senior executive at Klores, “so we were all talking about what jobs we were gonna have” in the new administration, Mr. Turso said. But the combination of 9/11’s impact and Mr. Green’s implosion in the final weeks of the campaign led to Michael Bloomberg’s unexpected victory, aided by a then-record $74 million he spent on the campaign.
That might have ended Mr. Turso’s hopes of returning to city government, except that Mr. Bloomberg chose as the head of his transition team Nat Leventhal, a former Deputy Mayor for Operations under Ed Koch who had gotten particularly involved with the Sanitation Department as the administration launched its most-celebrated productivity initiative, reducing collection crews from three workers to two and sharing the savings with the employees who remained on the trucks.
‘Interested in Coming Back?’
Mr. Turso said he got a call from Mr. Leventhal and was asked, “Interested in coming back and having fun?” He had already heard that ex-Sanitation Commissioner John Doherty, whom he hadn’t worked for but heard good things about, was returning to that job, and Mr. Turso said, “It was like a homecoming.”
It also offered him the opportunity to change his operating style at the department based on what he had learned while working for Mr. Klores. “In my early years here,” Mr. Turso explained, “I was ‘the voice’ of garbage. I had Commissioners who didn’t want to be quoted, who didn’t want to be in the media. After having been in the private sector, I learned it’s more important to get your client’s name out there and have my bosses quoted, rather than me.”
And, said the man who began his career in an era when his primary tools were an electric typewriter and a mimeograph machine, “The nature of the job changed dramatically once social media was born.”
Simply circulating a woman’s tweet about her engagement ring getting lost in her household garbage could get immediate media attention, especially if Sanitation Workers were able to locate and return it. “The enormous reach of the web pages and tweets and Instagram is incredible,” Mr. Turso said.
A New Life to Enjoy
Asked why he was retiring the following day at age 71 when he shows no sign of lost enthusiasm for the work, he said that his daughter Nicole, who had followed him into the government pr business, gave birth to his first grandchild, Olivia Theresa, in August. His wife, MaryAnn, recently retired from her position at Community Board 10 in Queens, and the two of them decided “we would be watching Olivia Theresa grow as my daughter resumed her work with the Department of Investigation,” effective Nov. 6.
As to other plans in retirement, Mr. Turso, a Long Island resident, said, “I live five minutes away from three golf courses in Eisenhower Park, and 10 minutes from five golf courses in Bethpage State Park, so I’ll find some time to play.”
What did he expect to miss most? “The people. They really are hardworking, genuine people doing a dirty job that has to be done. The only time they really are appreciated is when the streets are open during a snowstorm, but they really are so much more involved keeping the city safe, clean and healthy.”
Exasperated by Cheap Shot
Even in the wintry conditions in which sanitation workers shine, Mr. Turso continued, they were sometimes subjected to cheap shots, mentioning a New York Post photo early in the decade of a Sanitation Worker sleeping in the cab of his truck, with a caption stating he was part of the reason snow removal wasn’t as smooth as expected. The reality of the situation, he said, was that the truck had broken down, the employee was directed to stay in it until help arrived, and he had been 13 hours into his shift when the photo was taken.
“They ran the correction on page 34,” after he objected to the false representation, he said.
Less than 24 hours from being “walked out” of Sanitation’s headquarters at 125 Worth St. as a final tribute, Mr. Turso was still figuring out what he would pack up to take home. He planned to donate a large fleet of toy sanitation trucks he had accumulated over the decades to the Sanitation Museum, and was still pondering the fate of a number of Oscar the Grouch dolls sitting on a table nearby.
“It’s been fun, and I will miss it, but I’ve got other things I’ve gotta do,” Mr. Turso said.
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