Those of us who have been around for a while all have our memorable stories to tell about interactions with L. Brooks Patterson during his four terms as county prosecutor and seven terms as Oakland County Executive – some more private in nature and others that have received public airing in the media, all involving his wit and acerbic observations, politically correct or not, about the world of politics and the players in that ongoing drama.
The more private conversations will remain just that, out of respect for Patterson who died in early August after losing a battle with pancreatic cancer. But I will share one moment that took place in his office while Patterson was still Oakland County prosecutor just before he took a break from public service to reenter private law practice to raise money for his children's future education, only to return years later as county executive.
The conversation took place in his office at the county complex as we were comparing notes as to who he might hope would take over as prosecutor when he was going to leave office. Patterson's critique of potential suitors for the office was based not just on who had the necessary skill set for the office of prosecutor and the political wherewithal to win the office in a general election. Instead, he drew the conclusion that the first concern for that office, as well as the office of county executive, was whether the candidate had the ethics that were required to hold either office.
In rough recollection of how he phrased it, Patterson noted that when someone became either the prosecutor or county executive, the electorate had to be assured that once they navigated the labyrinth of corridors at the county complex and entered the physical office far removed from the residents that the office holder would have high ethical values to bring to bear on business conducted in the name of county citizens.
It was an interesting framing of what was the most important consideration, both then and today, as county commissioners grapple with how to fill the vacancy created by the passing of Patterson, which brings us full circle to the gamesmanship we’ve seen on display at the county complex in recent weeks.
What we see on display today in the appointment process is more like a back-alley scrum for power rather than a consideration of what is truly best for Oakland County and its citizens, with a county board that had a partisan split of 11 Democrats and 10 Republicans until county board chairperson (Democrat Dave Woodward) who resigned in order to be appointed as county executive prior to the 2020 scheduled election.
Let's look at what has transpired since Patterson's death.
August 3, Saturday: L. Brooks Patterson passes at 5:30 a.m. Oakland County Chief Deputy Executive Gerald Poisson, as provided by state law, takes the oath of office to become interim Oakland County Executive. As also provided by county charter, the clock starts a 30-day period for the county board to appoint an executive or a special election would be scheduled to determine the next executive.
August 6, Tuesday: Board chair Woodward, a previously announced candidate for the executive spot in the 2020 election, calls a county board meeting for Thursday, August 8, to appoint a county executive. Oakland County Treasurer Andy Meisner (D), also a previously announced candidate for county executive in 2020, issues a press release calling for “voters, not politicians,” to “choose elected leaders.” Meisner adds that if an appointment is going to take place, it should be “an open and transparent process.”
August 7, Wednesday: Woodward resigns, no doubt in anticipation of being appointed by board members the following day as county executive thanks to rumored backroom agreements worked out with some members of the Republican members of the commission. Newly empowered board chairperson Marcia Gershenson (D-Bloomfield) announces that she has cancelled the Thursday, August 8, meeting and announces that applications will be taken from the public until noon on Tuesday, August 13. A new meeting for considering an appointment has been set for Thursday, August 15, at 9:30 a.m.
August 8, Thursday: Interim county executive Poisson's office issues a press release criticizing Gershenson for her suggestion that the county executive's office is vacant and the appointment must be rushed to create a county budget (already submitted by Poisson's office to the board). Patterson's family criticizes the board holding possible appointment meeting the morning of Patterson's funeral. Board chair Gershenson cancels Thursday, August 15, meeting and calls for meeting of the board on Friday, August 16, where an “appointment may be considered.” Oakland County Treasurer Meisner announces that he will not be submitting an application for the appointment, reaffirming his earlier stance that voters, not politicians, should be making the decision and that he will still be seeking the post in 2020.
August 10, Saturday: Oakland County Republican Chairperson Rocky Raczkowski issues position missive to GOP county board members asking that Republicans not break rank and vote for a Democrat as an interim county exec. Among other position statements, Raczkowski defends cost of special election to determine the next interim county executive who would serve until the end of 2020, when a permanent county exec, chosen in the 2020 November general election, would take over. Two days later, the GOP county chair calls for the Michigan Attorney General, state lawmakers and the FBI to investigate alleged deals.
August 15, Thursday: Woodward reportedly is going to withdraw his application for appointment, one day after being interviewed for the job by a two-Dem committee (the GOP member walked out in protest over the makeup of the panel). And we are told Woodward is still on the commission because the board never acted on his resignation.
Oh, and let's not forget commissioner Shelley Taub (R-Birmingham/Bloomfield area) sending out an email to her caucus buddies telling them to delete any emails relative to the appointment just as a TV station was filing an FOIA request for the same.
In a few words: political drama that equals the best of daytime soap operas or evening reality television shows. A number of Oakland County appointments have been made in past years, but none have been this messy and disorganized. And none have involved the political intrigue that has engulfed this county board. The only thing missing is the clown car.
The unfortunate part of the current malaise – the impact on Oakland's future could be immense.
An interim county executive appointed by the board will more than likely be a Democrat. Holding the exec spot heading into the 2020 elections is expected to give any appointed incumbent a leg up when it comes to both a primary and general election next year.
On the flip side, appointing Woodward as interim executive would lead to a less than ideal transfer of power in Oakland County. Here's why. A great deal of Patterson's success in making Oakland a recognized powerhouse in the state and nation is the quality staff he assembled and nurtured.
These department heads and deputy executives will more than likely leave if Woodward takes the appointment and he more than likely will want to surround himself with his own personnel. So with just over one year left on the current executive term before the end of 2020, staff transitions will take place. Then, if Woodward runs and does not survive the 2020 elections for this post, the key staff positions will turn over once again. More transitions would be detrimental.
The best thing for Oakland County would be to let the current interim county executive continue until later in 2020 after voters have decided the next executive. Poisson, after all, has been at Patterson's side for a considerable length of time and there is a reason he held the key position of chief deputy executive. Patterson's team at the county would no doubt hang in with Poisson until the final decision in 2020, which would be a good thing.
Of course, the county board was scheduled at this writing to make a determination the day after this issue of Downtown newsmagazine went to press. Let's hope sensible heads prevailed and the board scrapped the idea of making a political appointment and appointed Poisson to finish out the term.