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Following the death of longtime Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson last month, it’s a new day for the county government — and one that presents many uncertainties.

We met this week with interim Executive David Coulter, and our first sit-down with the former Ferndale mayor didn’t give us any cause for alarm. 

Coulter, who is the first Democrat to hold the office, appreciates that he’s inheriting a well-run county — likely one of the best-run local governments in the country. And he wants to keep it that way.

Coulter also says he is on a mission to prove that “Democrats can govern,” balancing social and labor priorities with strong economic development.

“A mayor from a liberal town like Ferndale can still come up here and be responsible and do this the right way,” Coulter told The Detroit News editorial board. “I’m 100% focused on not screwing this up.”

He's got 16 months to deliver on that promise, the rest of Patterson’s elected term. Coulter says he’s not yet decided whether he’ll run for the position next year. Competition from Oakland County commissioners and other elected officials is expected to be fierce.

The Democratic-controlled commission (11 of the 21 members are now Democrats) may have different priorities in mind for Coulter, so he’ll need to stay firm in his commitment to doing what’s best for county taxpayers — especially in light of ongoing labor negotiations. 

Talks are underway for a full contract with the Oakland County Employee Unions/IBEW. The current pact expires at the end of the month, and negotiations are expected to be wrapped up in early October.

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Oakland County Executive Dave Coulter speaks about his priorities in a talk with The Detroit News editorial board on September 10, 2019. Todd McInturf, The Detroit News

Similarly, the county is negotiating wages with the Government Employees Labor Council, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, and the Michigan Nurses Association. Officials expect those wages to be finalized by Oct. 1. 

To keep the county on track, Coulter must remain committed to the priorities that made Oakland County a leader in sound government and business development. He says his priority is maintaining the county’s stellar AAA bond rating — which it’s had for over two decades — as well as keeping the tradition of three-year budgeting. He had firsthand experience with this in the eight years he served on the County Commission. 

“I learned very early on the importance of multi-year budgeting, the importance of the bond rating, and when it comes to the budget, that has always been sort of sacred in Oakland County and it’s kind of a philosophy I learned and continue to believe,” Coulter says. 

Although Patterson’s team of deputies who helped him run the county have stepped aside, Coulter says there’s still a solid group of employees in place. The directors and managers who worked under the deputies have remained at their posts, so he doesn’t have to start from scratch. 

“Brooks was outwardly nervous if a Democrat were to take over, they would blow the budget, and do all kinds of crazy things,” Coulter says. “I want to prove those folks wrong.”

We hope he does.

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