Top Patterson aides leave as Coulter becomes Oakland County executive

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

Ferndale — David Coulter took office Monday as Oakland County executive and will face tasks that include replacing three longtime officials who immediately retired.  

Former Ferndale Mayor Dave Coulter is sworn in as Oakland County executive by Chief Judge Shalina Kumar at Oakland County Circuit Court in Pontiac on Monday.

Oakland Circuit Judge Shalina Kumar administered the oath of office to Coulter in her courtroom, about four hours after he resigned as mayor of Ferndale during a morning meeting of city council. 

"I will be meeting with departments and employees and (am) eager to move forward," Coulter told about two dozen people who gathered in Kumar's courtroom for the historic event, which made him the first Democrat to ever serve as county executive following the Aug. 3 death of longtime officeholder L. Brooks Patterson. 

"This isn't a celebration for me," Coulter told those in attendance after acknowledging applause. "I know no one can replace Brooks Patterson, and I'm not going to attempt to. I will just do my best."

While the county gained Coulter, it lost at least three of its top administrators and more than 104 combined years of service. As he took office as the county's top elected official, former acting county executive Gerald Poisson retired, as did two deputy executives, Laurie VanPelt and Robert Daddow.

Coulter met Monday with Poisson, who has 38 years of experience with the county as an assistant prosecutor and deputy county executive.

"I had a 90-minute meeting with him that was warm and cordial in which he laid out some challenges and projects of the county," Coulter said. "He has indicated he will be available to talk more and there is a possibility he may agree to some form of a professional contract as a consultant."

Coulter said he hoped to name his own chief deputy executive in the next couple of days after that person is able to terminate her current position.

Coulter said one deputy county executive, chief information officer Phil Bertolini, rescinded a resignation he had turned in last week and will work until the end of August.

"He told me he will remain on the job until the end of the month and possibly in some capacity after that," Coulter said.

Coulter still plans to meet with Daddow, considered the chief architect of the county's fiscal policies, and VanPelt, the budget director.

County human resources director Jordie Kramer said VanPelt, who has 40 years with the county and Daddow, with 27 years, were both retired and no longer county employees as of 5 p.m. Monday.

"These people have all been through a lot," Coulter said. "Some are eligible to retire and I don't begrudge them that, although I would hope they are interested in staying in touch. I value and want their knowledge and expertise."

In a brief meeting with Ferndale officials earlier Monday, Coulter submitted his resignation and thanked several officials.

“While I’m sorry to be leave before my term is over, it is with the goal of serving the greater Oakland County community,” Coulter said.

Mayor pro tem Greg Pawlica assumed the mayor’s job until the council appoints a replacement to finish out the final four months of Coulter’s term. The council is accepting applications and will make an appointment Sept. 9 after conducting interviews. Two candidates, Melanie Piana and Brian Stawowy, are on the November ballot for the city's top job.

“I’m so proud of the mayor,” Pawlica said. “You have been a great mentor and Oakland County will benefit with you at the helm of leadership.”

Dave Coulter thanks people in the audience after reading his letter of resignation as mayor of the city of Ferndale during a city council meeting, Monday.

Coulter, 59, had served as Ferndale’s mayor for nearly nine years, including a partial one-year appointment to serve out former Mayor Craig Covey’s time when Covey was elected to the Oakland County Board of Commissioners. Coulter spent four terms as a commissioner.

During a bumpy selection process last week, the Board of Commissioners appointed Coulter to take over the county’s top elected position, which had been briefly held by Poisson after Patterson's death.

Coulter had neither applied for nor campaigned for the $201,000-a-year post.

Commissioners approved his appointment on a 11-10 vote taken along party lines. Republicans argued Poisson should stay in the job until voters could elect a successor to Patterson in November 2020.

A lawsuit, filed by Republicans against the board and Chairman David Woodward, D-Royal Oak, is still pending. It argues illegal machinations took place, including Woodward resigning his commission seat and then rescinding the resignation so he could cast a deciding vote on a board deadlocked at 10-10.

Republicans scrambled last Friday to seek a temporary restraining order against any vote by the board but Judge Daniel P. O’Brien of Oakland County Circuit Court denied the request. They plan other legal maneuvers this week, attorney Steven Haffner said Monday. He would not elaborate.

The county must have a budget by the end of September. One budget plan, crafted by Patterson's administration, has already been submitted to the county board for consideration. It is expected to face amendments.

"I haven't been appointed to fix things," Coulter said. "Just to manage a transition."

The transition will be for at least the next 16 months.

One of Coulter’s first actions will be naming his chief of staff.

Former Ferndale Mayor Dave Coulter receives a hug from a well-wisher after being sworn in as Oakland County executive by Chief Judge Shalina Kumar, left, at Oakland County Circuit Court on Aug. 19, 2019.

Coulter said he had been mentally prepared to vacate the mayor’s job, but not this soon. He had announced earlier this year he would not run for re-election but instead planned to run in 2020 for the 27th district state representative seat that covers Ferndale, Hazel Park, Berkley, Oak Park, Pleasant Ridge and Royal Oak Township.

While he could still make that bid, Coulter said he remains undecided about his future, including the possibility of running for the county executive office at the end of his temporary appointment. Two fellow Democrats, Woodward and county Treasurer Andrew Meisner, are among those who have shown interest in the top county job.

Coulter has degrees in social science from Michigan State University and an executive education certificate from Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. He has been a civil engineering draftsman, teacher and public affairs officer for the Michigan Consolidated Gas Co.

He made one unsuccessful run for state Senate.

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