Coulter says he can work with 'all sides' in Oakland Co.

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

Detroit — Newly minted Oakland County Executive David Coulter said Tuesday he is confident he can work with “all sides” in shouldering county business over the next 16 months.

Oakland County Executive Dave Coulter talks to reporters and editors of The Detroit News during an editorial board meeting on Sept. 10.

Coulter, 59, was appointed four weeks ago to the county’s top position to fill the unexpired term of longtime county executive L. Brooks Patterson, who died Aug. 3.

Coulter would be the first to agree it's been an eventful month — one marked by political infighting, even a lawsuit challenging his right to the post. But in a one-hour sit-down with The Detroit News Editorial Board, Coulter seemed eager to take on whatever obstacles lie ahead.

“We have a good group of people in Oakland County (government),” said Coulter. “But I think I will be able to show doubters that a Dem can do this job.”

Coulter, the first Democrat to hold the county's top elected post, said he is reaching out to various people to “tell me” what they expect from their new county executive. Those who have known him over the years — as a county commissioner and Ferndale’s mayor — described him as easy to work with and a leader who has a passion to put politics aside and get the job done.

When asked what he had to promise to get appointed by the county Board of Commissioners, he quickly responded: “Nothing” and emphasized it with two fingers making a “zero” symbol.

“I didn’t campaign for it and I didn’t lobby for it,” he said. “I didn’t reach out to them.”

In a controversial set of maneuvers, David Woodward, a Democratic commissioner from Royal Oak, resigned from the board to be eligible for appointment to the county executive’s position.

But one day after his interview Woodward removed his name from consideration and reclaimed his position as a commissioner and board chair, restoring the Democrats' 11-10 majority. Coulter, who was not interviewed for the position, was subsequently appointed in a party-line vote.

The moves sparked public criticism and a lawsuit by County Commissioner Michael Spisz, R-Oxford Township, and Andrew “Rocky” Raczkowski, head of the Oakland County GOP. The lawsuit, which seeks to unseat both Woodward and Coulter, is pending in Oakland County Circuit Court.

One month before he was appointed, Coulter — at the time Ferndale’s mayor — had announced he planned to run for state representative in 2020, something he still has not ruled out. 

“Right now, my focus is on doing the job of county executive,” Coulter said Tuesday.

“Brooks was always outspoken if Dems ever took over his job, ‘Watch out,’” said Coulter, who admits admiring his iconic predecessor’s success.

“I want to prove that a Democrat from a city like Ferndale can do this job.”

Toward that end, he has met with area officials: a lunch last week with Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel, and a breakfast with Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, both Democrats. He hopes to meet soon with Wayne County Executive Warren Evans.

He has, of course, huddled with Oakland County’s top elected officials, including Sheriff Michael Bouchard, the county’s top vote-getter and a Republican. He has sat down with several of Patterson’s hand-picked deputy county executives — four of whom have resigned or retired.

“I didn’t take it personal when they left, they were of retirement age,” Coulter said, adding that he has phoned them for advice and has not ruled out hiring one or more on a contract basis.

“We had one meeting with department heads and their deputies,” Coulter said. “We hope to have biweekly meetings for input on what needs to be done.”

There are past policies he knows are taboo to break, and also ones he embraces, such as an enviable quality of life for many residents from Ferndale to Oakland Township. There are fiscal accomplishments — such as eliminating all legacy costs from retiree health care and pensions — that other counties can only dream of achieving.

Among them: “A three-year balanced budget and the (county’s) AAA bond rating,” he said, noting Patterson’s team had constructed a budget that's before the county board for approval this month.

“Once it is approved, I plan to go out to bond agencies and show them,” Coulter said.

The bond rating enabled Oakland County to recently refinance old bonds at a savings of about $115 million.

Coulter admits as Ferndale’s mayor he “stole” Patterson’s Business Roundtable concept — providing successful business types with a soundboard for good government practices. He plans to support that practice at the county level “as long as (citizens) want it.”

Coulter envisions Oakland County becoming more diverse under his administration, with a workforce “to reflect the population.” He recalled when he became Ferndale’s mayor, one of his first moves was to install a rainbow flag in the council chambers, in support of the city’s growing LGBT community and to show it was a “welcoming city for all.”

“I think it's important that Oakland County and its workforce have a diversity that reflects the county,” he said.

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