Thank You, Ferndale
“I am forever thankful that my political career was here in Ferndale, because I’m not sure it could have happened somewhere else,” said Mayor Dave Coulter, who announced in April at the state of the city address that he will call it quits after four two-year terms that end in January. He said, however, that he doesn’t think he’s done with public service, as public service, government and politics are lifelong passions.
“I’m leaving this job, but I don’t expect to entirely leave what I love to do,” he said.
Coulter reflected on the past nine years as mayor of the city he’s chosen to call home since 1994.
“I found Ferndale, like a lot of LGBT people did,” Coulter said.
Years before, when he came out in his 20s, Coulter said he didn’t think he’d ever get to be a candidate for elective office, “because there were no examples of people like me as a candidate,” so he remained involved in politics but deferred his dream.
“Had I not found this amazing community my political career certainly would have been much different,” he said.
2002 marked Coulter’s first foray into elective office, in the race for Oakland County Commissioner. Facing an incumbent from Hazel Park, Coulter said, “I won because of the support that I got from Ferndale.”
With that narrow win — just 86 votes — Coulter realized he had made history: he was the highest-ranking openly gay elected official in Michigan. And even when he lost a bid for state Senate in 2010, following four terms as commissioner, Coulter could boast that he won Ferndale. Further, in the two most recent mayoral elections, Coulter ran unopposed.
“I like to say this community has supported me in every election I’ve ever run in, and I can’t repay them enough for allowing me to do what I love,” he said.
Righting the Ship
As mayor, Coulter has seen Ferndale through many changes — and that includes weathering some darker times. The city’s financial health was his main priority upon taking office, and navigating Ferndale out of the Great Recession is where Coulter’s leadership of the city began. He said that’s the achievement of which he’s most proud.
“I quickly had to work not on the more sexy and interesting projects that I would like to have, and instead had to do a lot of work around righting our financial ship,” Coulter said.
By implementing a tool he learned in Oakland County government, the council adopted a two-year budget. That enabled them to anticipate economic challenges sooner and was an important first step.
“I’m proud of the fact that today, Ferndale has a three-year balanced budget, an improved bond rating and a solid financial foundation that we could then use to build on the progress we’ve been able to make,” he said.
Coulter said he’s also proud of the improvements to city parks over the past nine years, made possible by way of money added to an infrastructure bond. Because of the upgrades, he said parks have seen much more use and have become an important aspect of the community.
Being mayor of Ferndale didn’t come with a handbook, and Coulter detailed a number of things he’s learned along the way. Number one, he said, was that although he had years of government experience, “what was surprising to me was how much more visible and personal it was being mayor,” whereas many people don’t know their county commissioners or state-level elected officials. He said that, “The involvement with people and the immediacy of it was different. And I wasn’t expecting that.”
Maybe that’s why many people don’t realize that being mayor of Ferndale is not Coulter’s full-time job. Currently, the program officer for the Children’s Hospital of Michigan Foundation, that’s typically where one will find him during regular business hours.
Of issues large and small, perhaps the most indispensable bit of wisdom gleaned that Coulter would share with future mayors boils down to this:
“Trust the residents. They will help guide you as to what’s best for the community.” He described this as refining one’s radar for how the residents view things.
When Coulter forewarned, “always trust the will of the residents who sent you there,” he provided the example of feedback surrounding the expansion of parking downtown. Presently, the Development on Troy (known as “The dot”) is underway: a mixed-use project expected to triple available parking that will include retail and office space, among other features. An earlier idea proposed by city council, the “360 Project” (three 60,000-square-foot parking structures) did not prove popular among residents.
“I still have bruises from 360!” Coulter said, with a laugh. “We all learned a very valuable lesson from that.”
Coulter added, however, that the experience was also a lesson in not being afraid to make mistakes — something he advises council members, and would tell future leaders of the city.
“The first thing I think you have to do as mayor is give people permission to fail occasionally — and some things have,” he said. “But by and large, I think it’s why we have a reputation of being an innovative and progressive government, because we have a reputation of being willing to push the envelope.”
Learning lessons through shared experience, as one governing body, is a key to what Coulter said has made Ferndale city government high-functioning. That entails collaboration. And collaboration requires respect.
“I see lots of city councils with factions: this group who’s trying to oust that group, and all kinds of internal dissension, and we’ve never had that because we’ve always treated each other with respect and honesty, and we debate our differences honestly, and we’ve all put the good of the city ahead of our own,” Coulter said. “I’m proud that our council works very collaboratively together and it doesn’t just happen by accident. A big part of the mayor’s job is to make sure that the mayor has a sense of where the council is at, and continues to listen and ask questions of them to try to move the group together.”
Changes in the City, Changes in the Mayor
Since Coulter took office in 2011, Ferndale’s growth as a city is unmistakable, but Coulter himself appears much the same. However, there has been a marked shift in how he views his role as a city leader. That occurred in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election.
“I found myself in a position where people wanted to hear from leaders and reassure them that Donald Trump was not going to change who we are as a country,” Coulter said.
Up to that point, he said he concentrated mainly on ensuring that city services were delivered “excellently,” that the parks were mowed and the snow was plowed. He would sometimes tell residents, “well, I’m not your state Senator or Congressman, I’m focused on city issues,” when state or national concerns arose.
“But I realized, after Trump, that was too narrow,” Coulter said. “And so I spoke out on immigration and women’s rights, LGBT rights, on resistance to the administration in general. … I’ve come to realize it’s an important part of what people want and need from their city leader at this point in time. And so it’s become an important part of what I do. So for me, rallies like last night — although that wasn’t directly a city issue — I’ve learned that it directly affects the residents of Ferndale and their well-being,” he said, in reference to a pro-choice rally held in the parking lot of city hall on May 21.
Coulter remarked on the evolution of Ferndale: lately, population is growing for the first time in 40 years. And as more people move to the city, it’s a desirable location for developers.
“It’s a very popular destination,” Coulter said. “And that growth comes with certain growing pains. There’s more of a debate going on now certainly than nine years ago about how we grow, and, more importantly, how we keep that growth from changing the character of our town.”
Coulter’s perspective comes from the eyes of someone who moved to the city in 1994, when he remembers downtown as “very empty” and “desolate.” Not only that, the city council was politically conservative. Over time, he’s not only seen Ferndale’s downtown grow and flourish, but also the adoption of a non-discrimination ordinance, the blossoming of a once-modest LGBTQ community center and the birth of the city’s own Pride festival, whose inaugural year was also Coulter’s first year as mayor.
“Cities aren’t static,” Coulter pointed out. “They’re dynamic, changing and growing, living things, and the key to all of that — and what has been my experience for my 25 years here — [is] that although the outward appearance of town or even what kind of people are living here has changed, what hasn’t changed is the welcoming, inclusive, friendly, tight-knit community it is. There’s just a spirit about Ferndale that has existed since I’ve been here and has kept me here all these years.
“And so the structure of the city changes somewhat, the demographics change a little bit, and will again, but the key for us is to try to make sure we’re always paying attention to that secret sauce of what makes Ferndale special, which is our friendly, inclusive, progressive attitude toward each other. And that has not changed,” he continued, adding that that attitude hasn’t changed within himself, either.