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Political maneuvering abounds as Oakland County Commission considers Patterson successor

Dave Woodward portait

Former Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson died on Saturday, but the race to replace him is already becoming complicated and heated--and sparked public criticism from Patterson's team.

By law, Oakland County commissioners have 30 days to appoint an interim successor for Patterson. If they don’t, a special election will be held to fill the remainder of his term through 2020.

Commission chair Dave Woodward, a Democrat, had called a special meeting to discuss a possible appointment on Thursday. Then he resigned his commission seat Wednesday, reportedly hoping to get that appointment himself, as state law prohibits a current commissioner from accepting the job. Woodward was already running to replace Patterson in 2020 when Patterson announced his pancreatic cancer diagnosis in March.

Woodward's resignation leaves the Commission split 10-10 between Democrats and Republicans. Commissioner Marcia Gershenson, also a Democrat, took over as Chair.

Gershenson then canceled Thursday's special meeting. The board will now accept applications for the appointment through August 13th, and set up a bipartisan candidate evaluation committee to review them.

The commission had originally planned to discuss a possible appointment at its next regularly scheduled meeting on the morning of August 15th--the same day as Patterson's funeral. That news caused Patterson's team to respond with a news release on Thursday, accusing Gershenson of insulting the Patterson family.

“First, Brooks’ team is appalled by the spectacle at the board of commissioners and Marcia Gershenson’s sham interview process for appointing a new county executive,” said interim County Executive Gerald Poisson, who's serving as Patterson's immediate replacement. “Scheduling the meeting the morning of Brooks’ funeral is simply inappropriate.”

Patterson's daughter Mary Margaret Patterson Warner added: “The wound of losing our beloved father and grandfather became deeper when we learned the Oakland County Board of Commissioners scheduled a meeting the morning of his funeral to seize control of the county executive office. This heartless play for power is unforgiveable and has offended the Patterson family. Our father has earned and deserves more respect than this.”

After that public backlash, Gershenson then postponed the next meeting until August 16th. Neither she nor Woodward could immediately be reached for comment on Thursday, though a spokesperson noted that the August 15th meeting had been on the calendar for months.

Oakland County Treasurer Andy Meisner, a Democrat also running to replace Patterson in 2020, also slammed the move to quickly appoint a new Executive on Tuesday.

“Voters not politicians should choose our elected leaders,” said Meisner. “If the Commission must appoint, it should use an open and transparent process that allows for the voice of the people to be heard. Openness and transparency will be hallmarks of my administration as Executive.”

“An open and transparent process should include a countywide call for applications, public interviews and an understanding of what criteria the Commission is using to make the appointment. This precedent has been followed in the past with previous vacancies. Why not now? What’s the hurry?”

On Wednesday, Meisner gave this statement to the Detroit Free Press:

"I love Oakland County and want us to maintain the high standards that set us apart from the rest. When the County Commission tried to force a hasty appointment of a successor for Brooks Patterson, I called for an open and transparent process where candidates could be identified, vetted and selected based on their merit. "Published reports of a choice already being made, and the resignation of the Board Chairman to accept the appointment, make me question the integrity of this process and wonder what backroom deals brought about this result."

Update: This article was updated on 8/8/2019 at 2 p.m.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Radio in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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