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Pontiac — The controversial process to pick a successor to replace the late L. Brooks Patterson as Oakland County executive didn’t take much time to gain more heat Wednesday during an interview process for candidates.

A three-person committee of Oakland County commissioners — Marcia Gershenson, D-Bloomfield Township; Gwen Markham, D-Novi, and Thomas Middleton, R-Clarkston — was preparing to interview the first of five finalists for the job when Middleton asked to make a statement and laid out some concerns.

“I’m not going to participate in the interviews,” Middleton said, before abruptly leaving the room.

Minutes earlier, Middleton had explained his objections to the process.

“The application deadline was noon Tuesday and I was given 20 applications and asked to reduce it down to four (people),” said Middleton. “Some applications were described as ‘glowing’ and they were less than that.

“I’m not comfortable with people I chose,” said Middleton, not providing names. “There might be good ones (there) if I had time to look into them.”

Middleton noted the Board of Commissioners is split evenly at 10 Republicans and 10 Democrats. He said the committee’s makeup — two Democrats and one Republican — was “biased” and “one-sided.”

“For this to work, it should at least be equal.”

Markham described Middleton's sudden exit as "suprising" and "disappointing."

"When we were together (Tuesday), he made no mention of any of this," she said.

The pre-selection process has been marred with allegations of back-room deals, much of them focusing on David Woodward, D-Royal Oak, a former commissioner who is one of the finalists.

County Treasurer Andy Meisner, also a Democrat, expressed interest in the county executive job last March but said recently he would not file an application for board consideration because he felt that the position should be decided by the people, not by elected officials.

Kevin Howley, a Huntington Woods Democrat who ran unsuccessfully against Patterson in 2012, said if he is appointed he will not run for the job in 2020.

"I know coming in there will be some landmines," Howley said of working with the current administration. "There are a lot of challenges but I can help facilitate the process."

Howley is president of Menallen Management, which provides interim executive services to organizations in transition.

"This is what I do," said Howley, describing his skill set at bringing people together.

He described working with organized labor as "critical" to the county's future strategy and said he been instrumental in mentoring people to achieve success. Howley said he was "frustrated" by the county appearing not in step with regional issues, including mass transit.

"Regional transit is a disaster right now," Howley said, adding that it is also a "critical" component to the region to bring employees in and of the county.

Randy Hazel, an independent and quality manager at Dana Inc., said he would bring his work experience to help Oakland County move forward. Hazel wants Oakland County to be "less reliant on automotive."

"I would work extremely hard to bring in other employers to the area and use the strong manufacturing base to market the county," Hazel wrote in his application.

Woodward noted he resigned as chair of the Board of Commissioners to be eligible for consideration. Woodward has more than two decades in public service — 14 years as a county commissioner and three terms as a member of the state House.

"I believe I am the best qualified for the job and hope others recognize that," Woodward said. "I want to continue to do what Oakland County does better than anyone — getting the job done." 

Among Woodward's priorities is to continue to attract and hire the best leadership to deal with the county's nearly $1 billion-a-year budget. He also wants to build a "recession resilient economy" and continue the county practice of identifying and providing residents with the skills needed "to get the good jobs."

"We also have to look forward," Woodward cautioned. "We are not prepared for the silver tsunami that is going to hit the county in 10 years."

Woodward, considered by some to be the front runner for the $201,193-a-year job, denied any "deals" had been made for him with county commissioners to get the county executive position and said he is "at the whim of a bipartisan" group. Woodward's exit from the board left it with an even 10-10 split between Democrats and Republicans, who had held a majority for decades.

"This is a difficult time," Woodward said of the replacement process. "There is a place for political discourse and a place to get things done ... I think I am the best qualified."

Another candidate, Tim Gossman, a Clarkston independent and broker who owns and operates Affinity Real Estate Group, described his strengths as finance and accounting.

"The position of county executive is not any different than running other companies which have multiple departments to oversee," Gossman wrote in his application. "I feel my extensive experience in maintaining profitable companies and overall vision will lend itself to a prosperous future for Oakland County."

The final interview, Julie Secontine, is a Milford Democrat who was the county’s former head of risk management and also, for one year, the only woman in the United States to be a state fire marshal. She is in private practice but knows well the political landscape in Oakland County.

“When I was part of Brooks’s administration I was criticized for never being Republican enough by Republicans and never Democratic enough by Democrats,” said Secontine.

Secontine said during her interview she is considering running for the county executive job in 2020, despite the two strong Democratic hopefuls who have announced their own interest.

Her interest extends into seeing the county expand efforts to improve education and health care for county residents while maintaining fiscal conservative practices.

One of 16 applicants who was not invited for an interview Wednesday was John J. Latella, a Republican from Rochester Hills. He described the application process as a “joke and embarrassment.”

“I applied for this position simply to prove a point, and low and behold it came true,” said Latella. “Personally, I don’t know any of the candidates but if that’s the best five the commissioners felt should move forward and get interviews, then I am baffled as to what the qualifications for this position are.”

Latell said his credentials include bachelor's, master's and law degrees and leading a company with $110 million in revenue.

“I managed our sale to the Campbells Soup Company in 2015 (I’m the former CEO of Garden Fresh Salsa),” he said. “I have served and continue to serve on several philanthropic boards both locally and nationally and am a Brooks 40 Under 40 and Crain’s 40 Under 40 alumni.

“My only point in telling you this is that I didn’t even get an interview.,” he said. “The process was/is a sham.

“… Ultimately it’s a shame that Brooks Patterson has barely been gone a week and current leadership couldn’t wait to push forward their agenda.”

Gerald Poisson, Patterson’s chief deputy county executive, has been interim county executive since Patterson’s Aug. 3 death. By county rules, Poisson is to maintain the position until a temporary replacement is named or the commissioners determine a special election for the post is justified. Cost of a special election would be about $794.000, according to the county elections office.

In a statement Wednesday afternoon, county Sheriff Michael Bouchard, a Republican, urged the commissioners to appoint Poisson to finish Patterson's term, which runs until December 2020. 

"There will be plenty of time for politics and campaigning later when the voters are more focused on the candidates and the issues," Bouchard said. "Brooks served this county with distinction for many years. We should continue his legacy and honor him with this prudent step."

Two commissioners, Mike Gingell, R-Lake Orion, and Robert Hoffman, R-Highland, said they favor appointing Poisson to complete Patterson's term and then let the job go to the voters in 2020.

"That way no one will have any advantage," Hoffman said of the proposal he plans to discuss at Friday's meeting. "The county will continue to be run as it has and there will be no additional cost to taxpayers." 

The selection committee was expected to report back to the full 20-person board with recommendations on Friday, at which time the commissioners could make a decision.

mmartindale@detroitnews.com

(248) 338-0319

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