Oakland panel got earful from voters over Patterson replacement

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

Pontiac — Hundreds of emails reveal officials were lobbied by residents to keep longtime Oakland County L. Brooks Patterson’s team in place after his Aug. 3 death, or at least until a public vote for his replacement.

The emails show residents peppering commissioners with their concerns, calling the unfolding drama to replace the late Patterson a "sham," "embarrassing" and "100 percent B.S.," according to emails obtained by The Detroit News under the Michigan Freedom of Information Act. 

Then-Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson speaks on the issue of regional transit during the annual 'Big Four' event at the Detroit Economic Club luncheon at Cobo Center in Detroit.

When Patterson died more than halfway through an unprecedented seventh term as county executive, the 21-member Oakland Board of Commissioners was responsible by state law for filling his position, either by appointment or special election within 30 days.

The resulting process over the past month has spilled into a lawsuit and a criminal investigation.

The News and other media filed requests for commissioners' emails and texts following comments by county Commissioner Shelley Taub, R-Bloomfield Hills, that she urged her colleagues to “delete, delete, delete” any emails regarding Patterson and their internal process for naming a replacement to fill out the rest of his expired term ending in December 2020.

There have been allegations following Patterson’s death that some commissioners engaged in “sleazy backroom deals” in exchange for their support of a candidate or candidates. None of the emails reviewed support such a claim.

Such actions could potentially violate the state’s Open Meetings Act. While there are certain conditions that allow elected officials, such as the board of commissioners, to meet in closed sessions, officials generally are required to conduct business in meetings open to the public

Taub told The News and others that after she learned there had been a FOIA request for commissioners’ emails, she sent out text messages to Republican board colleagues to delete all emails. Taub insisted she was not encouraging anyone to break the law but was trying to stop nasty messages being sent about Patterson and others.

One email from Commissioner Tom Kuhn, R-Troy, responded that her request might violate the law and he “wouldn’t do it” and he encouraged others not to comply.

Taub later said she regretted her wording. “It’s probably the dumbest thing I’ve ever done,” she said.

Some of Taub’s critics have called for her to resign. One Bloomfield Township resident filed a complaint against Taub for possible destruction of public records. That complaint, filed with the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office, was turned over to Michigan State Police for investigation and is pending, Lt. Mike Shaw said Friday.

County Commissioner David Woodward, D-Royal Oak, the board chairman, abruptly resigned from office late last month in order to qualify as a candidate for Patterson’s vacant position. His exit from the board left the commission with a 10-10 split of Democrats and Republicans, and a possible stalemate leading to a special election unless someone crossed party lines to vote on the next county executive.

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

More:Woodward drops bid for Oakland County executive, wants board seat back

Republicans urged their colleagues to let Gerry Poisson, Patterson’s chief executive deputy who had been sworn in as a temporary county executive, to serve out the final 16 months of Patterson’s term, after which a successor would be chosen in an election by voters.

But Democratic commissioners had other ideas.

Woodward, one of 21 applicants for Patterson's job, later was among the five candidates selected for interviews by a three-person study group, consisting of two Democratic commissioners and one Republican.

That process heated up before the first interview when the Republican member, Tom Middleton of Clarkston expressed concerns about the group’s partisan makeup and not having had enough time to study applications. Middleton refused to be part of the interview process and walked away.

While the group decided not to report back recommendations to the full board, Woodward pulled his application. He also rescinded his earlier resignation and cast the deciding vote to not accept his resignation, which permitted him to reclaim the chairmanship of the board. At the same meeting, Woodward cast the deciding vote to appoint Ferndale Mayor David Coulter, a Democrat, as Patterson’s replacement.

Oakland County Executive David Coulter is seen inside a conference room standing between l-r, the US flag and the county flag at the Oakland County Executive office building.

It's up for debate what prompted Woodward’s actions but most commissioners believe he miscalculated his support on the board. In an earlier email to a constituent, Commissioner Michael Spisz, R-Oxford, said he would not vote for Woodward but that Commissioner Michael Gingell, R-Pontiac, was prepared to “support Dave should the Dems get 10 votes.” Gingell’s vote would have made a total of 11 needed for the appointment but the vote never came up for consideration.

“That’s not good information,” Gingell told The News recently when asked about whether he was prepared to vote for Woodward. “I never said that.”

The emails show residents from Ferndale to Oxford weighed in with concerns to their respective commissioners. The majority described the unfolding process in unflattering terms such as “antics” or “shenanigans.” Others went further, citing what they viewed as a “rubber stamp” or “shortcut.”

Christopher Ward, administrator for the board of commissioners, said the emails were collected by a search of the county IT Department. Commissioners were responsible for submitting any records on their own devices or non-county email accounts.

Most emails asked commissioners to abstain from voting on any replacement and to maintain Poisson, Patterson’s chief deputy executive, as county executive until a special election or general election could be held.

Former Chief Deputy Oakland County Executive Gerald D. Poisson.

“I’m a believer in transparency in our politics and government,” said Stuart Sklar, a West Bloomfield Township attorney, who emailed his concern to a commissioner. “It appeared the fix was in for Dave Woodward for getting on the board and getting named county executive and I was uncomfortable with the way it was being done. It didn’t set right with me and I still (am) not sure what occurred was appropriate.

“I think a public vote for office is always preferable and let voters decide,” he said.

The Oakland County Republican Party had sent messages to its members suggesting they contact their commissioners with concerns. It could not be determined how many emails were prompted by that plea, but not all were GOP supporters. Some, like that from Birmingham attorney Larry Powe, a lifelong Democrat, were sent out of a concern for “civility” and respect for Patterson.

“I was never a fan of Brooks Patterson but I thought it was awful and disrespectful that they were planning to interview for his replacement on the day he was being buried,” said Powe. “I have to say I was quickly contacted and told that the day was being changed. I think that was the proper thing to do.

“I don’t know all the politics but from everything I’ve heard and read, I suspect it (county executive appointment) was all wired and ready to go,” said Powe

“I don’t know anything about Dave Coulter but hope he will be a good county executive.”


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