The mood was friendly, but critical when Oakland County Executive David Coulter visited Oxford Public Library for a town hall Jan. 7.
The meet and greet was part of a series called “Your County with David Coulter,” where residents can meet the new executive and share their ideas about the future of the county with him.
“My goal is to get to every community in Oakland County,” Coulter said. This was the tenth event, with several more currently planned.
It was well attended for a Tuesday morning. About forty people nearly filled the room. “I was pleasantly surprised how many people took time out of their busy schedules to come listen to a politician,” Coulter said afterward, “so I’m very appreciative that that many people did.”
As a former mayor and commissioner from Ferndale, he said he is more familiar with the south end of the county, “so it’s important for me to be out in communities like Oxford and hearing what’s on folks’ minds.”
“This is a very diverse county,” he said, addressing the audience, “and I don’t just mean demographically. We have urban, suburban, exurban and rural. And you know that better than I.”
Coulter, a Democrat, replaced longtime Republican county executive L. Brooks Patterson after his death last August. The Board of Commissioners appointed Coulter to fill the position in a narrow 11-10 vote along party lines Aug. 16 to serve the remainder of Patterson’s term for 16 months, until the end of 2020. When Patterson died, Coulter was serving as mayor of Ferndale and did not seek the position.
The deciding vote was cast by board chairman David Woodward, D-Royal Oak, who had resigned a week earlier in order to apply for the open position. Woodward then controversially rescinded his resignation last-minute in order to vote Coulter in. This sparked Republicans, led by District 3 Commissioner Michael Spisz, R-Oxford, to file a lawsuit against Woodward and the Board of Commissioners, challenging Coulter’s appointment. An Oakland County judge overturned the lawsuit in December.
Spisz sat in the front row at the library event, “just to observe.”
Coulter said they had a decent working relationship. “He keeps me honest. He’s been a great partner,” he said, noting that they worked together on the bicentennial among other things.
Before his appointment, Coulter had been running for state representative. He announced in October he would instead run for a full term as county executive in 2020.
Coulter said L. Brooks Patterson “did an outstanding job of managing this county. So my first job is just not to mess up the good things that work here.”
His goal is to maintain the county’s AAA bond rating, he assured. “The budgeting practices and the way that we operate in Oakland County are not going to change if I have anything to do with it.”
His first priority after assuming office was to pass the nearly $1 billion budget first proposed by Patterson in July.
When he was on the commission, Coulter remembered, they always passed the budget unanimously, so he was intent on doing the same for this budget. “Even though this is an 11-10 commission, we can do this together, and it’s going to force us to work together.”
Some advised Coulter against publicly saying he wanted a unanimous budget, and that he should call it a bipartisan budget instead. “My appointment was a little contentious. It was a partisan appointment, it wasn’t unanimous. They said, ‘I don’t think we’re going to get everybody.’”
Coulter conceded, but he still said privately that his goal was to have a unanimous budget. “We worked together, we sat down with the Republicans and the Democrats and I said, ‘talk about what you can both support. If there are things that one side can’t support, we’re not putting it in there.’”
Just six weeks after his appointment, the commission passed a balanced three-year budget for the county – unanimously. “I’m very proud of that, it’s one of the things I’m most proud of in the five months I’ve been in this job. Because it demonstrates that no matter how politicized our society gets, we can still do this if we’re honest about it and transparent about what we’re hoping for.”
The budget includes:
– $15 minimum wage for all employees of Oakland County.
– Safe drinking water stations at every school in the county.
– $2 million for local road improvement, to be matched by local municipalities.
Coulter briefly discussed his areas of interest going forward for the remainder of his term: health, economic development and diversity.
He wants to take a more regional approach to economic development. “Of course I want jobs in Oakland County, but in the grand scheme of things, we have to grow this region, not just Oakland County,” he said. “How can we bring more jobs to this region? Because metro Detroit isn’t growing. Our kids are leaving.” The number one issue he hears from businesses in the county is talent attraction.
After opening the floor up to comments and questions, the discussion shifted almost exclusively to mass transit, a topic Coulter did not mention explicitly in his remarks.
A Brandon Township man commended Coulter on the budget. “I really appreciate what you’re doing with fiscal management,” he said. Then he offered his opinion that “traffic circles are a waste of money” and he pointed out that young people leaving the region was not necessarily due to lack of mass transit, but higher taxes.
Coulter said although it is a road commission issue, he shared the opinion of roundabouts and opposed them as mayor of Ferndale. This produced a round of applause. “Clap for me now,” Coulter laughed, “I’m not sure if I’ll get applause after the next one.”
In next week’s edition of The Oxford Leader, see what else the new county exec had to say to locals.