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Ferndale mayor named Oakland exec in partisan vote

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

Pontiac — Ferndale Mayor David Coulter was appointed Oakland County executive on Friday to fill out the term of the late L. Brooks Patterson in a vote disputed by Republicans, the latest twist in a process marked by partisan acrimony and accusations of backroom dealing.

Ferndale mayor David Coulter.

The Oakland County Board of Commissioners voted 11-10 to appoint Coulter, who would be the first Democrat to hold the office. The vote was along party lines, and was made possible Friday morning when a judge declined a GOP request to block David Woodward, D-Royal Oak, from retaking the board seat he resigned from last week.

Coulter, 59, has been mayor for nine years and served two terms as a county commissioner representing Ferndale. While he didn't apply for the county executive job, he made an unsuccessful run for state Senate and in July announced he planned to run in 2020 for state House in a district that includes Ferndale and five other cities.

On Friday, he said he couldn't say whether he would consider running for state representative or for the county executive's position.

Coulter must still be sworn into the job. He is expected to formally resign as mayor of Ferndale at a special meeting on Monday.

"I appreciate the confidence you have placed in me," said Coulter, who attended both the full board meeting and Democratic caucus Friday. "This is not a celebratory day for me ... a day only made necessary by the passing of L. Brooks Patterson.

" ... You don't replace Brooks Patterson," said Coulter. "I can only be judged by my own merits."

Coulter said he hoped to work along with members of Patterson's hand-picked team "to move Oakland County forward during the transition."

He noted he has to have his own team in place within 10 days. Several key members of Patterson's staff informed the Democratic caucus Friday that they planned to resign or retire if they were not working with Gerald Poisson, who assumed the executive's post when Patterson died Aug. 3.

Coulter acknowledged how staff members made "the county executive's job look easy" and that he needed their expertise in handling the budget and other issues.

"I will do nothing to mess with the (county's) AAA bond rating," Coulter said, pointing to the ceiling or heaven. "I promise that, Mr. Patterson."

Democratic commissioners insisted they were on legal grounds that Woodward's stated resignation — in writing to county offices and verbally in his interview this week for the county executive job — had not taken effect because it had never been taken up by the board.

While several GOP commissioners said they had no quarrel with Coulter personally, they were more comfortable with keeping Poisson in the county executive office role and pleaded with their Democratic colleagues to consider keeping the status quo until the end of December 2020, when Patterson's term is up.

"I believe he is the best choice," said Adam Korchenderfer, R-Pontiac. Another, Robert Hoffman, R-Highland, said, "You heard a lot of people today say if it's not broke, don't fix it. ... for the sake of Oakland County and good government."

Commissioner Christine Long, R-Commerce Township, described the selection process as "crazy" and so "embarrassing" and choked back tears, saying she hasn't been able to sleep for two weeks.

Some members of the public took turns at the microphone chastising commissioners.

John Scott, a retired commissioner, said, "I've never seen anything like this ... it's a sham. I'm glad I'm not on this board. It's an embarrassment."

Patrick Kittle, Independence Township supervisor, said: "We are the laughingstock of southeast Michigan."

State Sen. Jim Runestad, R-Highland, who served three terms as a commissioner, said the board's actions and maneuvering left him "disappointed and disgusted."

The vote came four hours after Democrats regained a majority on the board when an Oakland Circuit judge refused to issue a temporary restraining blocking Woodward from resuming his seat as a commissioner.

Judge Daniel P. O’Brien denied the request after attorney Steven Haffner, representing Republican members of the board, did not attempt to invite Woodward or others to the emergency court hearing. 

County Republican Party leader Andrew “Rocky” Raczkowski, who filed a lawsuit against the board on the Woodward matter, said the issue would be refiled next week in Oakland County Circuit Court. An emotional Rackzkowski told the commissioners, "Shame on you," and suggested they "bring some dignity to this process. ..."

David Woodward, who resigned as chairman of the board of commissioners last week in order to be interviewed as a candidate for county executive, assumed his seat Friday morning and proceeded to handle county business as usual.

Friday morning, the Board of Commissioners had appeared deadlocked on whether to make an appointment for county executive or permit Poisson, a Republican, to remain in the job. 

With Woodward back on the board, Democrats had an 11-10 majority and proceeded to vote along party lines against a motion by Eileen Kowall, R-White Lake, to reject Woodward’s rescinding of his resignation.

Patterson, who had been county executive since 1992, was laid to rest Thursday after a public funeral at a church in Troy.

Chief Deputy Oakland County Executive Gerald D. Poisson.

Woodward's resignation last week, which left the board split 10-10 between Democrats and Republicans, was greeted with accusations of backroom dealing. Another Democrat who had expressed interest in being county executive, Treasurer Andy Meisner, said he would not apply for the post, which he said should be filled instead by voters.

Further controversy ensued when Republican Commissioner Shelley Taub texted her GOP colleagues on the board that they should "delete, delete, delete" any emails regarding Patterson and the search for his replacement. Taub, who faced calls to resign, apologized for sending the messages.

Oakland County Republican Chair Andrew "Rocky" Raczkowski holds a copy of David Woodward's resignation as he opposes Woodward trying to reclaim his job as board chair after he resigned to compete for the executive's job.

The board, meanwhile, accepted applications for the executive's post until Tuesday and received 21 bids. Five finalists were chosen to be interviewed Wednesday by a three-member panel made up of commissioners Marcia Gershenson, D-Bloomfield Township; Gwen Markham, D-Novi; and Thomas Middleton, R-Clarkston.

But before the interviews could begin, Middleton objected to the fact that the panel did not have equal partisan representation and walked out.

That left Gershenson and Markham to interview Woodward and the other candidates: Huntington Woods Democrat Kevin Howley; Randy Hazel, an independent and quality manager at Dana Inc.; Tim Gossman, a Clarkston independent and broker who owns and operates Affinity Real Estate Group; and Julie Secontine, the county’s former head of risk management and a former state fire marshal.

Hours later, sheriff's deputies were called to the board's chambers to investigate after an employee allegedly smeared what appeared to be olive oil on more than 300 seats to "get rid of the negativity there." 

A day later, with Patterson's funeral scheduled Thursday afternoon, Woodward dropped a bombshell: He was withdrawing as a candidate for the executive's job and taking back his resignation as a commissioner.

Not all were opposed to Coulter's selection as county executive, some even applauding it.

“Dave Coulter has been an indispensable partner for me in keeping southern Oakland County thriving,” said state Sen. Jeremy Moss, D-Southfield. "As mayor of Ferndale, he earned a proven track record of bringing progressive solutions to the table, promoting sensible economic growth, and ensuring diverse voices were welcome.  

“Dave’s talents and ingenuity will benefit all of Oakland County as our next executive. I’m excited to continue my partnership with him to connect state and county government in a way that will enhance the vitality of our community and its residents.”  

Tammy Carnrike, chief operating officer of the Detroit Regional Chamber, said: “The chamber extends congratulations to Ferndale Mayor Dave Coulter on his appointment as Oakland County Executive. We look forward to working with Coulter on key issues that require regional collaboration, like transit, to ensure a prosperous regional economy.”


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