Detroit pension trustee makes controversial comment at meeting

Detroit pension trustee makes controversial comment at meeting

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Cheryl Johnson Cheryl Johnson

Thursday's Detroit pension board meeting took a bizarre turn. At the end of the meeting, pension board member and Mayor Bing appointee Cheryl Johnson made the following comment while greeting a group of firefighters fighting to protection their pensions and public safety.

"I'm very happy to see you all here. I would like to encourage all of you and -- trying to choose my words carefully -- other members who look like you to come to these meetings."

That comment led to this one from Matt Gnatek, a fellow pension board trustee.

"When the city's getting ready to file for bankruptcy on a Friday, in a closed session we're discussing strategy, and next thing you know they're filing on a Thursday. Thinking that someone from this board possibly told the city that we're doing what we're doing."

And within minutes the arguing began.

"You know as a fact that what they did was based on what happened in a closed session here how?" Johnson said.

"I'm making that assumption," Gnatek responded.

"You shouldn't make assumptions like that," Johnson said.

"Well, you make assumptions too," Gnatek retorted. "You do that all the time."

Then the conversation went back to race.

"Cheryl, can you expound on your comment that you hope guys that look like them?" Gnatek said.

"I hope that the black firefighters and the black police take a more active role in the running of this board," Johnson replied.

"Why does the race of somebody have to have anything to do with the running of this board?" Gnatek remarked.

"I took massive offense to it. I know other people in that room took offense to it, but I think they speak for themselves," Gnatek said afterwards.

So does this whole drama speak to a deeper division between pension trustees at the worst possible time?

"If pension board members are spending time fighting amongst themselves, how can you really mount a strong defense in the face of bankruptcy?" I asked Gnatek.

"We always get the job done no matter what. This is an unfortunate and I hope isolated incident, but it was very telling," he said.

"We went to the pension board meeting to stay informed. We want to stay informed. We don't want our pension touched or included in bankruptcy," said firefighter Dennis Hunter. "I do not agree that it's just blacks or whites. I think all firemen, all police that's in that pension should be involved."

Johnson refused to comment for this story. Meanwhile, the pension board is scheduled to meet again next Thursday.

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