While most politicians running for their first full term in office can boast related experience and background, few can say they have firsthand experience. That’s the case with Oakland County Executive Dave Coulter, who, long before he was elected by the people of Oakland County to serve as their executive, was thrust into the position when he was appointed to replace incumbent L. Brooks Patterson after his death in August of 2019. Coulter made history. Not only was he the first Democrat to hold the position since its creation in 1974, but he was the first openly gay official to do so as well. In fact, with its 1.2 million residents, Coulter effectively became the highest-ranking regional LGBTQ official in the state of Michigan outside of Attorney General Dana Nessel, whose position is statewide.
But as Coulter expressed in a Between The Lines interview during 2020’s election season, he “never intended to just keep the seat warm” for another candidate.
“I didn’t know in the beginning if I wanted to run or not. But once I had my team together and we established a relationship with the board of commissioners [that] was really good and I knew we could make a difference on these big things, then the ability to be part of that, and help drive that kind of change in Oakland County, was what really attracted me to want to stick around,” he said.
Since winning the election by a more than 10-percentage-point margin against Republican opponent Mike Kowall, Coulter has had the advantage of needing no transition period between administrations and has continued to progress the initiatives and programs he began since his appointment. Coulter joined Between The Lines for an interview in December to assess current projects and his priorities going forward in 2021.
One of the first things that Coulter emphasized when he began his term was his focus on diversity and inclusion within Oakland County. In December of 2020, he announced the creation of a 31-member Equity Council that is made up of employees and officials across almost every county department. The council will hold monthly meetings to assess the County’s efficacy in its work, and its stated mission is to create a culture that respects diversity, equity and inclusion; promotes cultural sensitivity and understanding among employees; encourages and promotes workforce diversity; and ensures that the public receives services in a culturally sensitive manner. It is led by Robin Carter-Cooper, the county’s first chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer.
Regarding his own LGBTQ identity, Coulter said that it helped to inform him on the value of giving diverse people a “seat at the table.”
“I think my being LGBTQ helps give me a heightened awareness for my own limited perspective of the value of making sure that these historically underrepresented populations and issues actually get heard and addressed,” he said. “… And I’m happy to say that several LGBT employees that are on that council make sure that these kinds of issues are front-of-mind and being discussed, [so that we implement] policy to address any inequities in those areas so they actually get resolved. I think it’s a critical step that a council like that is going to be laying out measures that actually operationalize it and make sure change actually happens. That’s what’s really important.”
Coulter’s taken steps to implement payment equity among Oakland County employees as well. While the County has been taking steps to update its more than 30-year-old compensation plan since 2017, under Coulter a plan has been approved to increase County employee salaries across all departments by over $10.5 million with room to grow over the next five years.
“The previous administrations had decided that Oakland County needed a compensation study. And, essentially, those are used to make sure that our salaries in the county are competitive with market-rate salaries so that we can retain and attract the best, most-skilled employees. … But, frankly, compensation studies are difficult to do. They’re broad, they’re complex, they require a lot of work and that work had not been done, so I had the decision when we took over to either continue to implement a compensation study or not,” Coulter said.
And ultimately, he felt it was the best way of “instilling fairness in the [County’s] wage brackets.”
“Because if somebody’s not getting a decent wage, it means they were undervalued to the market and that needs to be corrected if we’re going to have a great workforce going forward. I have high expectations for our employees and we demand a lot of them so, at the same time, we need to compensate them like that market would,” he said. “I was pleased that the board of commissioners approved that earlier this month and that we’re going to start implementing that. It’s a critical part of talent retention and attraction.”
Dealing with COVID-19
As the novel coronavirus pandemic continues to disrupt life around the world, Coulter said he’s planning to adhere to regulations brought down from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services to stop COVID-19’s spread. Regarding recently released COVID-19 vaccines, Coulter is focused on getting as many vaccines “out as quickly and safely as possible” while still following regulations regarding their distribution.
“We are prepared to distribute as many doses of the vaccine as we acquire. A lot of my job has been making sure that once these vaccines come into our hands, we can get them out quickly and safely to the population. That’s a huge focus of mine,” he said. “I know that some are saying that this group should be ahead of that group, but … we’ve all agreed that we’d follow, as long as it’d make sense, a unified and uniform schedule of who gets the vaccines when.”
Notably, Coulter’s administration has made bars and restaurants a priority by providing them $10 million in a second round of relief funding via the Oakland Together Restaurant Relief Program before 2020’s end. Coulter said that service industries, which have been disproportionately damaged by COVID-19’s stay-at-home regulations, were high on his list to help.
“Earlier this spring, we gave out a pretty substantial round of funding to restaurants and bars, but when in November, when the governor had to, unfortunately, tighten up the health regulations and close indoor dining and drinking, we knew that that was going to be an area that needed particular help,” Coulter said. “I’m very worried about us losing restaurants and bars over the winter; they’re just not going to be able to survive. So, we looked at the amount of remaining CARES Act dollars that we had and said, ‘OK, we’ve put an additional burden on those businesses, and we need to get them another round of relief.’”
The CARES Act, or The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, gave a total of $2.2 trillion of aid to businesses around the U.S. back in March of 2020. While funds were left over for Oakland County, Coulter said the tricky part of distributing them was the lengthy application and approval process that accompanies their allocation because they were accessible to the County only until the end of 2020.
“So what we did is we took the almost 1,000 bars and restaurants that had received money from us in the spring, and we simply gave them another check. That allowed us to get the money out the door as soon as possible, without going through another application that we were afraid would take us past the end of the year,” he said.
Coulter said that while he’s pleased that Congress’s Paycheck Protection Program is slated to aid bars and restaurants again, he realizes that that money likely won’t be distributed until the spring of 2021.
“This was never meant to be enough money to get them through next summer, but our hope was that it would be enough to keep them going until the federal government got another round of stimulus out the door. It looks like that’s going to happen, but even if that doesn’t happen right away, the hope is that that is really bridge funding to get them through to maybe the spring when they will start to get this federal money that we hoped would come and now looks like it will,” he said. “It really was meant as an emergency lifeline.”
Long-Term Health and Transit
While COVID-19 has long been the topic of headlines, before the virus was a concern, Coulter’s platform prioritized inclusive and accessible health care, a comprehensive transit plan for Oakland County, and increasing sustainability with an ultimate goal of net-zero emissions. He said that none of those projects have fallen by the wayside, but many will require long-term planning before implementation. In the case of the Oakland Health 360 initiative, it will take three years before residents will have increased access to holistic health services in clinics around the county.
“That’s the longer-term vision for us of making sure that everyone in the county, including people in vulnerable populations like LGBT populations, have access to good, quality, affordable health care, because we know that in the LGBT community the percentages are higher of people who don’t have access,” he said. “It’s going to take us three years to transform our health clinics in Oakland County to be not just places where you can go to get a vaccine or that sort of thing but that you can go there for primary health care, mental health care and other services like that.”
Immediately, Coulter plans on implementing practices around sustainability. He said he will “aggressively” pursue a smaller carbon footprint as he begins his first full term and, ironically, COVID-19 has laid great foundations for that goal.
“If there’s one good thing about COVID, it’s that emissions declined 7 percent in the last year just because of less activity. There’s been less driving, less businesses operating. So we might have bought ourselves one more year, but we didn’t buy ourselves a decade. This continues to be an urgent quest,” he said. “Two of the things that have really struck me, just in terms of the ways that we’ve changed our operations in Oakland County is that more people with flexible work shifts and working from home, which requires less driving and the like, has really become the norm. And I think you’ll see a lot more of that going forward. That could even result in the need for less office space and less buildings that are using energy and so that’s a potential positive right there.”
He cited the lessened usage of paper due to digital work practices as a boon, too.
In fact, only one of Coulter’s proposed plans has been delayed: his regional transit plan. Meant to provide more effective transportation across Oakland and between counties, Coulter said that he’s still as committed as ever to bringing a comprehensive transportation agreement before voters, but concedes that Oakland County residents will have to wait a tad longer due to the immediacy of COVID-19 concerns.
“People are using transit differently, the voters’ appetite for a millage has maybe changed a little. But, having said that, I am just as committed as ever to helping to craft a transit plan that works for Southeast Michigan. I think the reasons for transit are just as strong as they ever were, but COVID has given us a bit of a pause in terms of figuring out how has COVID and the way it’s changed our lives changed how we interact with transportation, and it’s still my plan that within my first term of office,” he said. “I have four years here, that we put a transit plan before the voters.”
As unpredictable as 2020 was, Coulter demonstrably put forth many new initiatives and plans before constituents. He said that while COVID-19 threw many a curveball, he can “imagine not announcing another major initiative” for the time being.
“We have so much work to do on the major issues that have occurred this year.”