In 1984, history was made at LASERS when the first minority member was elected to the Board of Trustees. At the time, Cheryl C. Turner, a Department of Social Services employee, was unaware she was breaking through barriers that had been in place for 38 years.
Turner said, “I didn’t realize then that I was the first minority to serve on the Board. That experience proved to be at times more than what I could have anticipated. There were some people who were so kind and thoughtful, and there were others who managed to shut some doors before I could enter. At some point, I was joined with Trustees who were knowledgeable, but needed to learn about benefits and investments, and saw me just as another Trustee. Along with them, I was able to learn and grow right along with LASERS. We were there through LASERS growing up stage. I came to know some wonderful staff and Trustees who helped me and challenged me to have a voice, and I thank them for that.”
Turner spent her entire 34 years as a state employee with the Department of Social Services. She began as a clerk in 1972 and was promoted through the ranks during her tenure. Turner’s positions included Clerical Supervisor, Eligibility Examiner, Eligibility Supervisor, Supervisor for Orleans Parish Child Care Assistance Unit, and Community Specialist for the Community Mobilization and Outreach Services for Orleans Parish.
Turner decided to run for a position on the LASERS Board because she was curious. As a member of the local Union, AFSCME, she served as the local treasurer and as a Vice-President representing the New Orleans area on the State AFSCME Board.
“I couldn’t find anyone to tell me about LASERS,” said Turner. “I wondered who they were and where my deduction went to every payday. I did not realize the full capacity of LASERS from benefits to legislation, the laws, technology, investments, and the national trends for retirement systems as large as LASERS. From someone without a background in any of those areas, it was a huge challenge. There was no book, Serving as a Trustee for Dummies. It was very overwhelming, but I was eager to learn.”
Turner was a Trustee on the LASERS Board for a total of 15 years; and in 1995, was elected to serve as Chair. She is proud of what the Trustees accomplished during her time on the Board. Turner believes the most significant advancements were made in the investment program.
“As a System, our knowledge grew of what we needed to do, and the decisions that needed to be made, in order to keep pace with the industry,” Turner said. “We had to ensure that benefits would be available as we kept pace with the market, but we had to reduce our market risk, diversify assets, monitor inflation, work to grant cost-of-living increases, and reduce the unfunded liability. Our goal was to protect the investments of the System. We learned how to stand strong against adversity.”
Turner also recalled some of the challenges the Board faced during her tenure. “It was a constant challenge to combine the systems into one and bring it under the Treasurer’s office,” she said. “We had to learn to better diversify because of our exposure to market losses, to hire our money managers, and understand the world of investments. We also faced expansion and sought the best staff to bring on board to run the System, had to deal with fast-paced technology, and had to be transparent to everyone.”
Turner believes the value of LASERS to state employees grows over time. She stressed that most employees are not thinking about retirement when they enter state service. Their immediate concern is salary, frequency of pay, and number of days allowed off from work. Retirement and related benefits do not enter their minds until they are approaching retirement.
“When the employee realizes that someone stepped in and planned and secured their future, it is enlightening,” said Turner. “They come to know what a terrific plan LASERS has and the guaranteed benefit is a wonderful plus. Their retirement benefit and DROP is an advantage that most other people wish they had.”
Turner’s groundbreaking election to the LASERS Board and her dedication as a Trustee has had a historic impact on the retirement system. Turner shared, “Being a part of LASERS has been a monumental part of my life. My LASERS experience gave more to me than I was able to give in those 15 years. It was on-the-job training that prepared me for other life experiences, and for that I am truly grateful. I was part of a fantastic team of Trustees and friends that helped to transform LASERS into one of the top retirement systems in the country today.”