New Oakland exec David Coulter: No one can replace L. Brooks Patterson

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

Pontiac — David Coulter knows he has big shoes to fill and a tightrope to walk while wearing them as the new Oakland County executive.

Not only is Coulter serving out the term of a controversial figure, the Democrat enters the county's highest elected office enjoying a one-vote majority on the Board of Commissioners while facing resentment from Republicans over how he was appointed.

Coulter, the first gay man and first Democrat to be county executive, says his plan is to follow the fiscal management of L. Brooks Patterson that has earned the county a sterling AAA credit rating while exploring adjustments to his predecessor's policies in other areas, most notably regional transit and staff diversity.

Oakland County Executive David Coulter is seen inside a conference room in front of the county's flag at the Oakland County Executive office building.

“I’m not here to fix anything,” Coulter said in an interview with The Detroit News. “I’m not preparing to broom people out of jobs. And I’ve no intention of replacing Brooks Patterson. No one can do that.”

He knows hard feelings linger over the process that ended with his surprise selection Aug. 16 to finish the term of Patterson, 80, who died Aug. 3 after leading the county for nearly 27 years.

Coulter, 59, believes Democrats and Republicans can come together for the good of the county, pointing to his experience as a county commissioner from 2002 to 2010. He went on to serve as mayor of Ferndale from 2011 until resigning Aug. 19.

“When I was on the board, Democrats were in the minority, and we had our fights,” he said. “But we would always come together over important issues like the budget. I voted approval on every one that came before me.”

Melanie Piana, a former Ferndale councilwoman who served with Coulter for nine years, described him as “very thoughtful, deliberate and forward-thinking.”

“He always wanted to see what was needed in the community and will bring that to the county executive office,” Piana said.“He always viewed Ferndale as part of the regional puzzle. I think he will bring that perspective to the future of transit, housing and other opportunities."

Some Republicans aren't feeling so collegial about Coulter, who faces litigation from the county party's chairman aimed at overturning his appointment. The week after Patterson died, board Chairman David Woodward resigned and subsequently applied for the job.

A team of three commissioners — two Democrats and one Republican — was appointed to interview applicants. But the Republican, Thomas Middleton, walked out Aug. 14 before the panel began speaking with Woodward and four other finalists, saying the group's makeup was unfairly partisan. 

A day later, with Patterson's funeral taking place, Woodward withdrew his candidacy and rescinded his resignation from the board. The next day, the board, with Woodward sitting as a member, appointed Coulter county executive, bypassing the interviewed candidates.

Among those upset by the process is John J. Latella, the former Garden Fresh CEO who sought but was not granted an interview for the executive's post.

Latella said Patterson's longtime chief deputy, Gerald Poisson, should have been allowed to finish his old Republican boss' term.

"If all these Democrats cared like they claim they do about the residents of Oakland County, then why not keep the status quo and let the voters determine the next executive in 14 months?" he said. "Brooks’ team has a history of immense success. As much as I like Dave Coulter as a person, his own party is using him as a patsy.” 

Another candidate for the executive's job, Anthony Bartolotta, said he too has nothing against Coulter but was appalled by how he was chosen. 

“He might be a good county executive, but I’m sickened by the whole process of how he was picked,” Bartolotta said. “They should have left Gerry in the job."

Retired county commissioner John Scott, another Republican, said he believes Coulter is “in over his head.”

“He’s a good guy, amiable and able to work both sides of the (political) aisle,” said Scott, who started out as a commissioner at the same time as Coulter; both served for eights years.

Oakland County Executive David Coulter, (r), is seen meeting with l-r, Helaine Zack, County Commissioner and Hilarie Chambers, Chief Deputy County Executive at the Oakland County Executive office building.

“He didn’t show a lot of leadership (on the commission) and don’t recall him heading their (Democratic caucus). But he got along with everyone and didn’t come up with any crazy resolutions like some of them.”

Coulter, for his part, said he didn't seek the job but believes his appointment was proper. Asked if Woodward's actions were appropriate, he replied, "I’m not a lawyer, but legal advisers said they were, and that’s good enough for me.” 

Coulter said he learned the day of Patterson's funeral from Woodward's replacement as board chair that Democratic commissioners were interested in naming him to the post.

“I was contacted on the day before the vote by (commissioner) Marcia Gershenson, and she informed me my name had been circulating around some commissioners," he said. "She wanted to gauge my interest before further discussion.

“I said ‘yes’ and was invited to the next morning’s meeting.” 

In an 11-10 vote along party lines, Coulter was appointed. On Wednesday, county Republicans sought a preliminary injunction to overturn the board's action, a request denied by Judge Daniel P. O’Brien of Oakland County Circuit Court. A ruling on the GOP lawsuit itself will come later.

Coulter admits he will now shoulder the biggest job in his career. The county has a nearly $1 billion annual budget, and Coulter’s administration is responsible for hundreds of employees and policies that impact the lives of more than 1.2 million residents.

Coulter spent time last week talking with local, regional, community and business leaders, in addition to Poisson and other county officials, seeking input on the road ahead. Poisson, along with two other top Patterson aides, retired when Coulter took office.

“I’ve had two really good meetings with Gerry, and he’s been incredibly helpful,” Coulter said. “He and some other (departing) deputy executives have indicated they will voluntarily offer help and advice. I also have to make appointments on several regional boards — Regional Transit Authority (two appointments), Great Lakes Water Authority, and SMART.”

The new county executive is not unfamiliar with budgets.

 “As a county commissioner, I was on the finance committee for six of my eight years,” Coulter said. “It is a big job, but we will get there. I will do nothing to jeopardize our Triple-A bond rating.”

Over the next 16 months, Coulter said there are other matters he hopes to have an impact on, including the development of a regional transit plan, which Patterson generally opposed.

“That’s very important to me and also to many business leaders I have talked with,” Coulter said. “The ability of attracting a workforce and providing a way to get to and from work is needed. A plan was defeated by a narrow margin in 2016. It’s been four years. I don’t want to wait another four years.”

Among other goals, Coulter said he wants the county government to be more diverse.

“I want the best-qualified people for the job, but we can do more (in diversity),” he said, noting that his recently named chief of staff, Hilarie Chambers, is the first woman to hold the position.

Coulter had announced last month that this was his last term as Ferndale’s mayor and he planned to run for the state House of Representatives in 2020. That plan now appears on hold, as does whether he might consider running for a full term as county executive.

“I have been so busy all I can think about is doing my job now,” he said.

Coulter is known for being passionate about social issues. In 2013, he and U.S. Rep. Sander Levin, in a protest of cuts to food stamps, undertook a challenge to spend less than $4.50 a day on food. In 2014, Coulter became the first mayor in Michigan to perform same-sex marriages.

“He was very collaborative and inclusive, making sure everyone gets heard,” Ferndale Councilman Dan Martin said. “He had a strong passion for social justice. Very personal. What you see is what you get.”

Jack Lloyd, who was mayor of Hazel Park from 2002 to 2014, showed up at Coulter’s mayoral resignation Aug. 19 “to thank him for all the years of service and good relations between Hazel Park and Ferndale.”

“He’s good at bringing people together and getting them to work together,” Lloyd said. “I think they made a wise choice. He may be caught up in a crossfire up there, but it’s nothing of his making.” 

Levin said he expects good things to result from the new county executive. 

“I’m enthusiastic,” said Levin, who still lives in Royal Oak. “David is perhaps opposite to Brooks in many ways — a calm temperament but also has a very intense devotion to his work. ... He will provide excellent leadership, and I believe the county is very lucky he is willing to do this."

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