Harper Woods mayor resigns amid 'white supremacists' uproar

Harper Woods — Mayor Kenneth Poynter, facing a firestorm of criticism over his reported remark that he understood why people "become white supremacists," resigned Friday, a day after Harper Woods' interim city manager called for him to step down. 

Ken Poynter of Harper Woods

"The city of Harper Woods has just accepted the resignation of Mayor Kenneth Poynter," John J. Gillooly, the city's attorney, said Friday afternoon. "It's a very difficult thing. Mayor Poynter has devoted much of his adult life to doing great things for those who live and come to visit the city of Harper Woods."

Poynter had been mayor of the Wayne County suburb since 1997, was a member of the Harper Woods school board from 1982 to 1997 and had worked as a media specialist at Carter Middle School in Warren.

But his latest term ended with the city in turmoil over the June 10 death of a woman who was in police custody and a comment Poynter reportedly made last week during a meeting with city department heads and community leaders.

During the July 21 meeting, Poynter reportedly told the group, "I understand why white people would become white supremacists.” The comment outraged civil rights activists, who called for his resignation.

Will Smith, a longtime Harper Woods resident and former city councilman who was at the meeting, said Friday he was "shocked" by Poynter's words and that resigning was the right thing for him to do.

"I wasn't sure if I heard him correctly, and when I asked him to clarify his remarks, he offered me an apology," said Smith, a retired Detroit police officer.

A second activist who attended the July 21 meeting, Jaye Hill, agreed it was time for Poynter to go.

"I thought it was appropriate for him to leave," said Hill, who is pastor of Evangel Ministries in Detroit. "If he was saying something like this publicly in a meeting, you know he was saying it privately."

The furor over the mayor's remark followed the June 10 death of Priscilla Slater, 37, a day she was arrested at the Parkcrest Inn on the 20000 block of Harper by police responding to a report of shots fired. A man who was with Slater, Lewis Nichols, 27, also was arrested and charged with 20 felonies related to the incident.

Slater's death sparked a series of protests, including one where Poynter's wife, Margaret, allegedly tore up a demonstrator's sign, and one in which marchers gathered outside the couple's home, reportedly angering the mayor. 

In a statement posted on the city's website Thursday, Interim City Manager John Szymanski called on Poynter to step down.

MoreHarper Woods interim city manager asks mayor to resign over alleged 'white supremacists' remark

“Recent comments by Mayor Poynter ... do not reflect the values or beliefs of the administration or residents of the City of Harper Woods," Szymanski said in the statement.

Gillooly sounded a similar sentiment in his statement announcing Poynter's departure.

"Unfortunately, the city does believe it's in the best interests that Mayor Poynter resign," the city attorney said. "We do not believe his comments were appropriate or reflective of those who live and work in the city of Harper Woods. We also feel it's necessary in order that we can bring change and enhance the civil liberties and rights of each and every person within the city and those who come to visit it on a daily basis.

"We wish Mayor Poynter well."

Hill said he has known Poynter for several years and described him as a "great man who did good works but had some bad misjudgment in his heart."

"I was surprised that he said that," Hill said.

Smith said Poynter didn't help matters after being asked to explain his remark about white supremacists.

"I then asked him to apologize to everyone in the room and some thought it was a disingenuous apology," Smith said. "Some others thought it was too little, too late. One person told the rest of us that what was discussed in the meeting should stay in the meeting."

Smith disagreed with that stance.

"When I hear information, I feel the city needs to know," he said, "I will report it to the community."