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'Protect ... these people:' Detroiters get 3 minutes to tell judge why they oppose bankruptcy

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DETROIT - It all came down to three minutes.

It took decades of mismanagement to build the massive problems that plunged Detroit into bankruptcy. Lawyers will spend months in court sorting out the city's finances.

But the people most affected, the retirees and residents, often aren't at the table. For a few brief moments Thursday, they got the chance to tell a judge about what the mistakes will mean for them. How they'll make ends meet. How they feel robbed after decades of service. How the city seems on the verge of breaking the promise of a pension.

But each had just three minutes — 180 seconds — to make the case.

Some used canes. Some wore their Sunday best. All were passionate, even when soft-spoken. For the first time since the city filed for Chapter 9 protection, surrendering under $18 billion in long-term debt, most attorneys were in the back row listening while taxpayers were at the front talking.

"I object to being referred to as a creditor," said retiree Paulette Brown, a former water department employee who got notice of the bankruptcy because her pension is at risk. "What I am is a dedicated public servant. ... Who's going to prison for the proposed cruelty to retirees?"

City resident Sylvester Davis invoked a higher power: "If you've got God in you," he told the judge, "do the right thing. Disallow this mess."

Judge Steven Rhodes replied: "Well spoken, sir."

Detroit has filed for bankruptcy protection but that question remains unsettled until a trial in late October. Creditors, residents and others have a right to object to the city's eligibility. And under the rules, they also have a right to be heard.

A red light went on if speakers exceeded the three-minute limit, but the judge was generous, often allowing people to keep talking. He left it to a courtroom guard to remove anyone who simply wouldn't stop.

The judge clearly was moved by the hearing and called the remarks "thoughtful, compassionate, compelling."

Indeed, most objections were deeply personal. Retirees frightened that pensions could be reduced told Rhodes that monthly payments are a life ring that keeps them out of poverty. The Michigan Constitution says public pensions can't be impaired, although Detroit emergency manager Kevyn Orr and his legal team say that doesn't automatically make them off limits in a bankruptcy.

Rhodes heard many complaints about Orr, appointed by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder to fix Detroit's finances. He recommended bankruptcy and is not accountable to voters. Critics argue the state's emergency manager law is unconstitutional and, as a result, makes the bankruptcy case illegitimate.

"I call on you to protect these flesh-and-blood people ... over corporations who preyed on the city of Detroit and knew better," said William Hickey, a resident for more than 50 years who tends community gardens.

Cynthia Blair said she relies on a $3,000-a-month pension earned by her husband, a police sergeant, who died in 2004. Jacqueline Esters, a pensioner who made $2.24 an hour when she got her first city job in 1968, summed up her view of Detroit these days as "promises made, promises broken."

Aleta Atchison-Jorgan worked in the housing department when she retired in 2004 after 30 years with Detroit. She spent hours on her computer studying pension details, then typed her thoughts and practiced speaking in front of her husband before appearing in court.

"I'm not a mathematician. I wanted to know what I was talking about. We're entitled to a pension. ... Why would I sit back?" Atchison-Jorgan later said outside court.

Another Detroit resident, Jean Vortkamp, got emotional as she described the bleak state of city services. She said the body of a young homicide victim remained on her street for five hours before being removed.

"Detroit is not an airline or a cupcake company. We are a family that deserves respect," Vortkamp told the judge.

After listening for more than three hours, the judge summoned an attorney for the city, Bruce Bennett, who acknowledged the anxieties of retirees and said "bankruptcy is never a good thing."

Nonetheless, he added, Detroit's problems are "enormously complex."

Rhodes kept his attention on the speakers, rarely looking away as they stood a few feet from him at a microphone. He said anyone with a stake in the case who couldn't attend the hearing should listen to a recording on the court's website, especially Snyder and Orr.

"Democracy demands nothing less," Rhodes said.


Follow Ed White at

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