Jacques: Oakland County swings harder to the left

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News

Democrats are now calling the shots in Oakland County, and things are starting to look different in this former Republican stronghold. 

Case in point: The Oakland County Board of Commissioners meets Wednesday, and one of the first items of business is adoption of a non-discrimination policy that will apply to all county employees as well as any entity that contracts or subcontracts with the county.

The official "Pope of Pride" Gordon Matson, 58, of Oak Park walks down Nine Mile Road at the Ferndale Pride Festival in Ferndale, MI on June 2, 2018.

Some Republicans are concerned that it goes too far. 

Democrats this year took control of the county board, 11-10, for the first time in 40 years, and longtime Republican County Executive L. Brooks Patterson died in August after a quarter century in that role. The commission replaced him with former Ferndale Mayor Dave Coulter, a Democrat who recently said he will seek a full four year term in 2020. 

So it’s a new day in county government. 

The non-discrimination policy, which has already been approved by the board’s Legislative Affairs and Government Operations Committee, states that discrimination or harassment will not be tolerated on the basis of “race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, national origin, age, genetic information, height, weight, disability, veteran status, familial status, marital status” and other factors. 

Violators face disciplinary action, termination of a contract or dismissal from county employment.

One of the Republican commissioners told me he’s “very concerned” that the county is overreaching with this policy, in that it would ultimately apply to all villages, cities and townships that contract with the county — in addition to many entities outside the government. 

By including vague language such as “gender expression,” this moves the county into territory that goes beyond what’s required in state and federal law.

And the policy would allow the county to choose contractors for reasons other than performance and cost — potentially placing a higher value on political correctness than fiscal interests.

Such language is becoming pretty standard fare for cities around Michigan — dozens of local governments have adopted human rights protections that apply to sexual orientation and gender identity. And Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued a directive early this year extending these rights to state employees. 

Oakland County Executive Dave Coulter makes announcement that he will run for the full term of Oakland County Executive next year during a press conference at Brass Aluminum Forging Enterprise in Ferndale on October 31, 2019.

Yet there isn’t consensus on offering these legal protections. The state Legislature still hasn’t expanded the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to include those groups, although the state’s Civil Rights Commission has spurned lawmakers by investigating claims of discrimination against those individuals anyway. Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel has given the commission the green light to continue its work. 

Coulter, in an interview with our editorial board in September, said he’s committed to maintaining Oakland County’s enviable business climate and AAA bond rating, while also working toward ensuring the county is “perceived as a place that is welcoming and safe and supportive of everyone.”

To that end, the county is crafting a new chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer position, which will go before the board next month. That officer, if approved, would make sure the county workforce more closely mirrors the population as a whole. 

Bill Mullan, a spokesman for Coulter, says the executive worked closely with the board on the non-discrimination policy, and that “most companies already have a corporate policy on file, and we are catching up to these established standards.” The county doesn’t expect a financial impact on companies it works with or on its own operations.

“You can be both — a progressive community that advocates for social issues, but also be mindful of the budget, and respect your business sector,” Coulter said. 

Now it’s up to this new crop of Oakland County officials to prove that’s true. 

Twitter: @Ingrid_Jacques