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Patterson faces Democrat-majority on Oakland County commission for first time

November 11, 2018

Crain’s Detroit

By: Bill Shea

While the pundits and partisans debate the national scope of the so-called Blue Wave in Tuesday’s election, in Oakland County the reality is clear: Democrats will assume the majority of seats on the county commission for the first time since the mid-1970s.

And that may accelerate the county government’s participation in regional issues such as mass transit and economic development.

The current 14-7 Republican majority flipped on Tuesday to an 11-10 Democratic majority that begins Jan. 1. The only other Democratic majorities in the board’s history were 1972-1974 and 1976.

Tuesday’s result means longtime Republican Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson will face an opposition majority on the county commission since being elected to his role in 1992.

None of the four Democrats elected to formerly GOP seats campaigned as economic radicals, so there appears to be little worry of anything upsetting Oakland County’s business-friendly reputation.

The clashes may come if the Democrats push regionalism. Patterson prefers to concentrate on the county’s internal economic development and endorses regional issues only when the direct benefits to Oakland County residents and businesses are clear.

Patterson issued a statement the day after the election: “The results of Tuesday’s election were not unexpected. My administration has always reached across the aisle, especially at budget time, to pass a bipartisan, balanced, three-year budget. We will continue to do so.

“I look forward to working with the new board to continue my administration’s priorities of protecting Oakland County taxpayers with a balanced, multi-year budget, a AAA-bond rating, and a healthy fund balance. In addition, driving job creation in Michigan through diversification in the knowledge-based economy and supporting small businesses, investing in technology to improve government efficiency and services, and to enable our residents to experience a premiere quality of life through active and healthy lifestyles.”

Crain’s requested a chance to talk to Patterson directly about what he sees at potential conflicts with the new board of commissioners, but his office didn’t make him available.

Regional cooperation is the chief area that’s likely will be a source of tension between the commission majority and the county executive, said Oakland County Commissioner David Woodward, a Democrat whose 19th District represents Berkley and a portion of Royal Oak. He was first elected to the commission in 2004.

“When it comes to a lot of regional issues, Oakland County has been a barrier to progress, and that’s going to change,” he said.

Regional transit is especially a potential showdown. Patterson undercut the 2016 tax initiative that would have funded a system of high-speed buses and other transit options across Oakland, Wayne, Macomb, and Washtenaw counties. Its narrow failure at the polls — it lost by just 1,109 votes in Oakland County out of 586,000 cast — set back any effort at regional transit by years and left the Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan gutted.

Patterson, long hailed by supporters and even some detractors for his stewardship of the county’s finances, also has staked out opposition to a new regional economic development effort, Woodward said.

Some of the region’s CEOs formed a loose coalition two years ago to back the regional transit effort, making it one of the rare occasions Patterson and Oakland County government found itself at odds with the larger business community. His objection to the tax was that Oakland’s participation wasn’t justified by the level of service its residents would get under the plan.

That nameless group of regional CEOs and organizations, during this year’s Mackinac Policy Conference, announced its plans to launch a regional economic development nonprofit public. Patterson hasn’t joined the group and in August drew condemnation when he said he’d “rather join the Klan” than pay dues to the new business attraction group. For him, the organization appears to represent a threat to county autonomy and its ability to lure companies. Phil Bertolini, Oakland County’s deputy executive and CIO, did join in an advisory role.

Longtime transit advocate Marie Donigan, an Oakland County political observer and former state representative from Royal Oak, predicts that any squabbling likely will come over the next effort to gin up regional support for mass transit along with economic development efforts that cross county borders.

“I’m sure the new Democratic leadership will be more eager to participate in regional efforts to bring businesses and jobs to the region while fighting for what’s best for Oakland County,” she said via email. “I think the Democrats will push the Regional Transit Authority to develop a vibrant public transit plan that meets the needs of those with no other choices while giving everyone else the choice to get where they want and need to go without having to rely on a car.”

Patterson appoints members to the RTA board and has veto power over any plan it proposes. He used that power in 2016 to carve out more benefits for the county before allowing it to go in front of voters.

Economic issues within Oakland County are likely to be more politically harmonious for the board of commissioners and the executive. Woodward said he’s optimist there largely will be bipartisan cooperation between the new board majority, the GOP, and Patterson.

“Democrats and Republicans in Oakland County government share a lot of the same priorities,” he said. Democrats on the commission campaigned on investing in people and infrastructure, and protecting the water, Woodward said. Roads are a priority for the incoming board, Woodward said.

“Frankly, those should be bipartisan issues,” he said.

Detroit Regional Chamber President and CEO Sandy Baruah said he’s not concerned that the board’s control change will have much affect on Oakland County’s business hospitality.

“Oakland County has such a strong and growing base of businesses, it’s reputation for attracting business is so strong, that I don’t think changes in the county commission are going to impact that,” he said. “The change in control doesn’t mean Democrats don’t share similar goals to increase the tax base and make Oakland County a prosperous place.”

Baruah also said he believes Patterson is genuine in his pledge to seek bipartisan compromise because he’s done it when Democrats were the minority, and it’s in the best interest of the county overall.

“Brooks is a pragmatic guy. He’ll find a way to work with the new commission,” he said.

That pragmatism and rhetoric about bipartisanship on county issues will be tested when it comes time to carve out spending priorities next year.

Oakland County does budget forecasts on three-year cycles, and in September approved a balanced spending program totally $2.1 billion through 2021. The fiscal 2019 budget alone is $893.4 million. The county’s 5,100-plus employees serving a population of 1.25 million residents.

Oakland is the state’s second-most-populous county after Wayne, and is one of the most affluent in the nation. The 2010 U.S. Census ranked Oakland County seventh amount U.S. counties by median household income at $99,198. Tops was Loudoun County, Virginia, at $115,574.

Oakland County’s top employment sectors are health care and social assistance (102,419 jobs); professional, scientific, and technical services (102,348); retail trade (79,622); manufacturing (66,792); and administrative and support services (65,653), per stats provided by the county.

Baruah isn’t surprised the board flipped after so many years because demographic changes with the Democratic Party, which he said increasingly includes highly educated wealthy people that might once have been Republicans. Being business friendly isn’t just a GOP attribute.

“We’ve seen the purple-ing of Oakland County over the last decade and this is the year it finally flipped in a significant way,” he said.

The one constant for more than a generation of Oakland County politics has been Patterson, 79, who won his seventh four-year term in 2016. He was elected county prosecutor in 1976, a role he held until his county executive election 16 years later. He was badly injured in a 2012 traffic accident and hasn’t decided if he’ll seek re-election when his current term ends on Dec. 31, 2020.

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