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The selection of a replacement for deceased Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson has turned contentious as the Oakland County treasurer is urging the county commission to delay a decision prompted by his political rival.

County Treasurer Andy Meisner has called for the commission to hold off on appointing an interim county leader during a special meeting Thursday called by Commission Chairman David Woodward, a Democratic opponent. Meisner and Woodward are already running for the party's nomination for county executive in 2020.

State law allows the 11-10 Democratic majority commission 30 days to appoint an interim executive or allow that time to lapse in favor of a special election to choose a replacement for Patterson, who died Saturday at age 80. Chief Deputy Executive Gerald Poisson was sworn in to run the county after the death of Patterson, a longtime Republican.

“Voters, not politicians, should choose our elected leaders,” Meisner said in the press release.

Meisner’s plea was sent out shortly after the county announced a special meeting for 7 p.m. Thursday that might consider a replacement for Patterson. The meeting will be preceded by a 6 p.m. majority caucus meeting and a 6:50 p.m. meeting of the Legislative Affairs and Government Operations Committee.

The state law governing the appointment process prohibits a sitting county commissioner from being appointed executive. Woodward would need to give up his seat to be considered for the appointment, leaving the vote to a split Republican and Democratic board.

The board would need a majority of members present, at least 11, to make a quorum. 

The commission previously had scheduled a regular meeting for Aug. 15 at 9:30 a.m., according to the board's website.

The board has a responsibility to find a consensus on appointing a new interim executive instead of scheduling a special election, said Commissioner Gwen Markham. 

"By delaying this decision into a special election, we’re pushing someone in the position of executive out into a period of time when we need to be focusing on the budget," said Markham, a Novi Democrat. "That’s our job. That’s the most important thing we do.”

Markham said more than one person has expressed interest in the job, including Meisner and Woodward. She declined to say how she would vote Thursday, but noted it was a "tough decision" for everyone involved. 

"It's not so much about politics at this point," she said. "It's about getting the job done.”

GOP might boost Woodward

Commissioner Shelley Goodman Taub echoed Markham's concerns about the need to appoint an executive soon to finish the budget. The Bloomfield Hills Republican said she doesn't plan to vote for Woodward, but she would help him going forward to ensure "continuity of government."

Taub, who started on the commission in 1993 during Patterson's first term as executive, described Woodward as an "honest man" who could be relied on to deliver because of his familiarity with the county's budgeting process.

"We can’t be partisan," Taub said. "The job has to get done.”

Since appointing a Democratic executive is all but inevitable, commission Republicans are grappling with the latest indicator of an increasingly blue Oakland County, said Democratic political consultant Mario Morrow. Patterson was the "last standing Republican stronghold" in a county that's been shifting left since the Obama administration, he said. 

"It would be in the best interest of the Republicans who have some leverage to make the best out of this that they can," Morrow said. "They can pick their Democrat, someone who’s going to work with them and not turn county politics upside down overnight.”

Should Woodward's name surface as a potential appointee, Republican support and any absences due to vacations could be the deciding factors in whether Woodward gets selected. Woodward didn't immediately return calls for comment.

At least one of the commission's 10 Republicans is open to appointing Woodward, a former county Democratic Party chairman who has been on the board since 2004 and represents Berkley and most of Royal Oak. 

Commissioner Tom Middleton said he canceled plans to head up north when he was notified of the meeting, but he didn’t learn the meeting was being held to appoint Patterson’s replacement until a Detroit News reporter informed him. 

The Clarkston Republican said nothing is guaranteed “until the vote is done,” but he said he may be willing to support Woodward as interim executive “if the circumstances were in such a way.”

“I need to see who’s in the running before I make the commitment,” Middleton said. “I thought it was kind of fast, but they only have 30 days or otherwise it goes to a general election.”

Skirt law for pay raise?

But Meisner said he wants a slower process that is more open to public input.

“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,” Meisner said. “This precedent has been followed in the past with previous vacancies. Why not now? What’s the hurry?”

Any attempt to skirt the law prohibiting commissioners from voting themselves into county positions and "giving one of their own a $150,000 pay raise in the process is troubling," Meisner said. Patterson last year made $201,193.

At least one Republican on the board is sympathetic to Meisner's argument for leaving the decision to voters. Commissioner Tom Kuhn said he has yet to see an agenda for the meeting, but said he doesn’t plan to vote Thursday for any appointee. 

“This is the county executive,” the Troy Republican said. “It’s the most important position in county government. I think the voters should decide it, even if its temporary.”

Commissioner Adam Kochenderfer would also prefer a special election, but he noted the Republicans' minority status prohibits them from dictating the terms of the replacement process. 

"If Chairman Woodward was nominated for the county executive appointment, I would likely vote no on that appointment," the Rochester Hills Republican said. 

The interim executive, who would replace Poisson, would serve until the end of 2020. Woodward and Meisner are running for the chance to face off against a Republican nominee to win a full four-year term starting in 2021. 

eleblanc@detroitnews.com

(517) 371-3661

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