18 Years of Change: Departing Commissioner Helaine Zack Shares Successes and Advice
(Cheryl Weiss, Dec. 30, 2020)
Oakland County, MI – As 2020 comes to a close, residents in Huntington Woods, Ferndale, Hazel Park, Royal Oak Township, and part of Oak Park will see a change in leadership as longtime County Commissioner Helaine Zack retires and Charlie Cavell takes the 18th District seat.
Zack spent 18 years helping citizens solve problems and working to improve life in Oakland County. While she decided not to run again for County Commissioner, her dedication won’t stop.
“I’m retiring, but I’m not disappearing,” Zack said in a recent phone interview. She spoke with Oakland County Times about what’s happened in those 18 years, what advice she has for the next Commissioner, and where she’ll be focusing her energy next.
THE WORK OF A COMMISSIONER
The Board of Commissioners is the legislative body of Oakland County. Each Commissioner is elected to serve a two-year term, and the 21 members are responsible for many tasks including adopting resolutions, approving the annual budget, establishing the property tax millage rate, as well as creating and overseeing programs and services.
Zack was first elected to the Oakland County Board of Commissioners in 2002, representing the southeast corner of Oakland County. While there have been changes with redistricting, Zack’s final constituents were in Huntington Woods, Ferndale, Hazel Park, Royal Oak Township, and part of Oak Park.
During her tenure, Zack has worked on various projects such as jail diversion for the mentally ill, services for senior citizens, and the new Oakland County Animal Care and Control Center which opened in 2017.
When asked what she was most proud of during her time as a County Commissioner, Zack said “Solving community problems. Helping people solve everyday life problems is very rewarding.”
A meaningful experience for Zack was when she was able to rally others together on an infrastructure project. Township Roads, such as Wyoming Street in Royal Oak Township, are managed by the Road Commission for Oakland County. Funds are limited and each year the Commission looks at data such as road condition, traffic volume, crash reports etc to determine how to divvy up the funds. Zack was told Wyoming Street was not a priority, yet it was in horrible shape. “It needed to be done,” she said. And she was determined to make it happen.
Zack and a group of residents that included leaders in the Royal Oak Township community as well as Oak Park Mayor Marian McClellan attend a Road Commission meeting. Seeing residents at a meeting was a surprise for the Commission as people rarely attend. The Commission listened to the needs of the people who spoke and found the funding to make it happen.
Commissioner Zack has also paved the way for projects with a regional impact.
Among them were millages for the Detroit Zoo and the Detroit Institute of Arts. She attended block club meetings, gatherings of local organizations, city activities, and other events to spread the word. And on each Election Day, the millages passed. She’s also been an advocate for transit, even making headlines with a transit trip. The idea was to show the challenges people face getting around. A drive from Southfield to Beaumont Hospital in Troy would have taken 25 minutes by car. She walked, bussed, and Ubered on the nearly 3 hour journey. And while regional transit is still far from what it can be, involvement by advocates like Zack have helped bring increased services and improvements to the system.
When asked about her most challenging time as a County Commissioner, Zack discussed the hardest vote she took: the creation of the Great Lakes Water Authority. She said that it was not perfect, and it was hard to vote for something that fell short of what she felt the public deserved.
“Water is such an important commodity and there have been historically so many issues around running of the Detroit water system, the inefficiency. The deal was brought to us as a result of the Detroit bankruptcy. We were being asked to make decisions without having all the materials in front of us at points; they were closed door discussions. It was definitely better for all of us, but not a perfect scenario.”
Zack explained that prior to the Great lakes Water Authority, “Oakland County was allowed to appoint two people to the Water Board, but it was an advisory position with no authority to make decisions. Projects were never completed; we were still paying bond rates for them. They were staffed with half the amount of staff that they needed, and it was not run well. We are still paying for that inefficiency.” Zack added that each city brings unique costs into the system for infrastructure, and some don’t make updates and repairs to prevent more costly problems down the road.
PEOPLE AND PETS
Working to create change within Oakland County has brought some rewarding successes.
One of Zack’s first encouraging experiences was being among those who championed jail diversion for those with mental illness facing incarceration.
“Now we have a great program in Oakland County,” she said. “Being part of the tipping point that made things change…that was my first term.”
Her background as a social worker led her to projects that improved the lives of Oakland County residents. “I worked on jail overcrowding, the silver tsunami report in 2010, elevating senior issues, the Area Agency on Aging, championing mental health issues,” she recalled.
She also stood up for the dogs and cats of Oakland County, helping community advocates have a voice in improving conditions for animals in the county shelter. In 2017 the new Oakland County Pet Adoption Center was built.
The previous Animal Control building had been built in the 1950’s or 60’s, and the practices and procedures there were as outdated as the physical building.
“It was a bad structure, inefficient,” she said. “There were many problem areas. Strong animal activists spoke up about how we did our animal business.” The County Commission created a study group that Zack was a part of. They learned about shelter medicine, TNR (trap, neuter, release), best practices of animal care facilities, involving the community, and euthanasia. Several Commissioners including Zack attended pet conferences. It became an important issue for her, along with other Commissioners on this project. They learned about the best practices that Oakland County was not doing. They were determined to try to improve the operations.
“When it came to budget time, that was the greatest opportunity for the minority party to voice their opinion and try to get some things done,” she recalled. “Animal Center was my number one priority during that budget year. We really wanted to see that happen.” Negotiation happened on both sides, and there was a great deal of public testimony from both sides of the aisle. They collected hours and hours of public testimony, which was very effective; the advocating meant they were able to put the issue at forefront for budget negotiations. In the end, they built the state-of-the-art animal care center.
THE HIGHS AND LOWS OF 2020
By far, however, the most memorable time for her as a County Commissioner is this one, her final term in office. For the first time in decades the Democrats had a majority on the County Commission. And when longtime County Executive L. Brooks Patterson died, they were able to appoint Democrat David Coulter to the position, who has subsequently been re-elected.
This opened the doors for progressive issues to move to the forefront of county politics.
“This term has been the most unbelievable experience! When you talk about going out on a high note…never in my wildest dreams did I think I was going to be in the majority party.” Zack said.
When Zack first became a County Commissioner in 2003, there were six Democrats and 19 Republican Commissioners. Coulter was also among the six, having been newly elected the same year.
“Brooks Patterson ran everything. He and his staff set the agenda for commissioners. He kept our staff small. The Republicans fell in line, they did whatever he said,” Zack said.
“Brooks got ill, which was unfortunate and sad and then he passed. He had actually had an impact on the state legislation that said the Board of Commission appoints the successor. So we got to appoint Dave Coulter. He brought in stellar awesome Deputy County Executives, that are bright and creative, just amazing. They represent Oakland County, a more diverse group.”
Zack recalls that she went to Chicago in February with Dave Coulter and his team to sell Moody’s and S&P on the Oakland County bond rating. They showed that Democrats can be fiscally responsible; there is a change in leadership and good governance will continue. Moody’s and S & P gave Oakland County a glowing seal of approval by continuing the AAA bond rating.
Then COVID-19 hit.
And life in Oakland County, as well as around the world, changed. As of Dec. 30, Oakland County reports 53,468 cases of the coronavirus, and 1,486 residents have died.
Yet the death toll, and the economic consequences of the pandemic, could have been worse.
Zack is proud of the steps Oakland County has taken to help keep people alive and help keep the economy from falling worse than it has. They have set up multiple grants – serving small business owners, nonprofits, veterans and others in need. They invested in PPE production and distribution, set up testing and vaccination locations, partnered with Ship for free delivery of grocery purchases, set up a dashboard for day to day tracking of the virus, provided nurses to local school districts and more.
“It’s been so impactful what we’ve been able to do, it’s been so busy,” Zack said.
FAMILY AND FLOWERS
Now, with just a few days left in her term, what will retirement look like for Helaine Zack?
Her “day job” work will continue. She is a social worker who focuses on employee well-being and trauma intervention. When bad things happen, such as the Royal Oak Post Office shooting years ago, she works with the employees affected by those events. She works as a consultant as time permits to work with employees dealing with trauma. This may include car accidents, unexpected deaths, or any other traumatic events. She finds it both challenging and rewarding. Because of COVID, she has not been able to do much of it lately, but she plans to continue as she can.
As for the newfound free time, Zack is looking forward to more visits with her children. She has a daughter, son-in-law, and granddaughter in London, England. Another daughter and son-in-law are in Los Angeles. The pandemic currently limits their conversations to the phone and the computer, but she’s looking forward to lots of hugs in the future.
Zack has also taken on the role of Adopt a Garden Coordinator in Huntington Woods. She has one adopted pocket garden of her own, but she is now in charge of all the pocket gardens in Huntington Woods. She constantly walks and rides her bike past the various gardens around the city to see what they may need. She may coordinate with volunteers, workers, and the City’s Department of Public Works to help the tiny patches of nature blossom into all they can be.
“I love to garden; it brings me joy. I volunteered to do this for a year and see how it works. If it does not work, I will let it go after a year to the next person. I want to make sure Huntington Woods looks good.”
PASSING THE BATON
Charlie Cavell has been elected as the next Oakland County Commissioner for the 18th District. Zack said she has met with Cavell about six times to help him understand the job and answer questions.
“My selfish goal is that I hope he is going to be really successful,” she said. “I can walk away saying I’ve given him my time and energy trying to educate him about how to proceed.”
Oakland County Times asked Zack what advice she had for Cavell and the other newly elected Commissioners.
She explained that it’s easy to go into a new position with a lot of energy and ideas, but it’s also important to learn the processes and build relationships in order to make those ideas happen.
“The thing that I keep reinforcing is to slow down, really learn what it means to be a Commissioner. Learn what the County does. Servicing the constituents, the five communities takes a lot of time and energy; there is a lot to do just starting off. Focus in on that.”
Of the next Commissioner, Zack said “His energy is fabulous. It’s great to have a new set of eyes looking at things. I want Charlie to be the best Commissioner he can be for all of us.”
A FUN FINALE
Although much of the work on the Commission is hard and serious, there are some fun parts, and fate has Commissioner Zack leaving with a smile.
Not only will her legacy carry on in the programs she helped implement, but the Commissioner also recently had the honor of having a drain named after her.
Yes, a drain.
As Chair of the Finance Committee, Zack also served on the drain board which also includes the Water Resources Commissioner (Jim Nash) and the Chair of the Board (Dave Woodward). She has been passionate about water and the environment through her time in public service. So when a new drain in Auburn Hills was added to the system, Woodward suggested they name it after Zack.
Drains are commonly named after Commissioners. For example there is a Gilda Jacobs drain in West Bloomfield, Zack explained. “I am truly honored by my drain and I am having a lot of fun with it,” she said.
She recently trekked out to Auburn Hills and searched for part of the infrastructure that now bears her name.
“Dave Woodward challenged me to visit the drain,” she said. “One of the very kind WRC engineers sent me a map of where to see something. It was a funny outing.”
It is just one of many fond memories she’ll keep.
To the Oakland County residents Zack represented for the last 18 years, she said, “It has been such a privilege to serve. I am so grateful for all of the wonderful, dedicated volunteers and citizens. I appreciate how people have welcomed me into their community.”