Major Changes Coming for Oakland County, and Possibly for Regional Transit

After decades of dominating regional politics in southeast Michigan, L. Brooks Patterson died August 3.

For 26 years, L. Brooks Patterson was Oakland County Executive, focusing on fiscal discipline, “business attraction,” and “local control.” He was extremely proud of the county’s many years of AAA bond ratings and balanced budgets. (He was also well known for his “caustic wit” and “controversial comments” which we won’t analyze here.)

On transit, he was a major barrier to investments in great region-wide transit.

Brooks Patterson supported SMART bus service, as long as it remained in a limited area and focused on getting low income workers to jobs.

His staff are quick to point out that he wasn’t anti-transit since he consistently supported SMART bus service in every renewal vote. He recognized the need for people with disabilities and low-income workers to get around. However, he also fought against expanding SMART throughout all of Oakland County, using bureaucratic maneuvers to prevent it in 2009, over majority support in the County Commission.

When considering region-wide transit, he insisted that each and every town must be able to decide whether to be part of regional transit. He said he was protecting the region’s outer, more auto-oriented communities, like Rochester and Novi, from being taxed for something they anticipated little direct benefit from. Unfortunately this position reinforced the current SMART opt-out system and undermined the very premise of regionalism. (It’s also unrealistic in a region of 140+ communities!)

As Mayor Mike Duggan pointed out in Feb 2018, Patterson’s position was disingenuous, as he helped pass the RTA law that required region-wide transit plans and funding votes:

Brooks Patterson publicly rejected the idea of an RTA transit plan that covers all of Oakland County. What is so hard to understand is that it was Patterson himself who lobbied for and helped pass Public Act 387 in 2012, the law that requires the RTA to have countywide transit plans.

When Patterson proudly sat with Governor Snyder at the signing ceremony in December 2012, he lauded the PA 387 provision requiring that a minimum of 85% of all money collected in a county must be spend on routes located in that county. So when he told the public that Oakland County communities … would receive little to no benefits, he knew full well that what he was saying was false….

Some day, Southeastern Michigan will join the rest of America in recognizing the critical importance of regional transit. But it will take regional leaders to build a regional transportation system.”

Mayor Mike Duggan
Macomb Exec Mark Hackel (left) and Oakland Exec Brooks Patterson increasingly conflicted with Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and Wayne Exec Warren Evans over expanding transit region-wide.

He also delayed putting regional transit funding on the 2016 ballot, directing his appointees to the RTA board to oppose it until he extracted guarantees that they could veto any RTA funding decisions. Then when it was finally placed on the ballot:

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.”

Crains Detroit Business, Nov 11, 2018
TRU mobilized hundreds of people across the region to speak out against the efforts of Brooks Patterson and Mark Hackel to block a regional transit vote in 2018.

Now the County Commission will choose an Interim Executive.

With his passing, his Deputy County Executive Gerald Poisson, who has stepped in to run the county while Patterson went through cancer treatment, is serving as acting county executive. The Oakland County Board of Commissioners has 30 days to appoint a successor who would serve for the remainder of Patterson’s term (through 2020).

The County Commission changed majority in January 2019, as noted by the Detroit Free Press:

For more than 40 years, Republicans have been in charge of the Oakland County Board of Commissioners, but on Wednesday evening (January 9, 2019) it was a new boss banging the gavel over a newly elected Democratic majority.

The liberal-leaning leaders announced their wish for collaboration across party lines, but privately they endorsed ideas sure to spark contention with conservatives in Michigan’s most affluent county: embracing mass transit, working with outsiders toward regional goals and “welcoming” diversity.

As the Detroit News reported last month, two of the top contenders are strong transit supporters.

“Two Democratic candidates — County Board of Commissioners Chairman Dave Woodward and County Treasurer Andy Meisner — plan to run for the open position and have said they want to shed some of what they argue is Patterson’s bombastic avoidance of regionalism, mass transit and social programs….

Mass transit is a focus for Meisner and Woodward, who argue that Oakland County should be a leader in getting a regional system instead of throwing up roadblocks.

Dave Woodward on Aug 7 stepped down from his seat on the Commission, which is required to be considered for appointment as Executive. This leaves an even 10-10 partisan split on the Commission.

A special election may be held and the seat will be open again in the November 2020 election, and numerous Republicans are likely to run as well in this very purple county.

Even with a more transit-supportive Oakland County leader, Macomb’s Executive Mark Hackel may still block regional transit from the ballot. But he’d be standing alone against much broader regional support than before, so perhaps a deal can be worked out.

While many questions remain, changes in Oakland County have the potential to benefit regional transit.