If you weren’t familiar with Brett Withers prior to the January/February cover of The East Nashvillian — on which he’s pictured, bespectacled and bow-tied, as an East Nashvillians of the Year winner — you’ll have good reason to get to know him better in the coming months.
Today, Withers — a five-term president of Eastwood Neighbors and a busy, longtime advocate for bettering East Nashville — announces his 2015 candidacy for District 6 Metro Council.
It’s a fitting next step for Withers, who earned that East Nashvillian of the Year citizen award for various neighborhood contributions, but particularly for his work to help our community manage rapid growth while maintaining its historic character. He helped guide an expansion of Eastwood’s conservation zoning overlay, teamed with Lockeland Springs leaders to expand theirs, and stretched over the river, too, to work with neighborhood leaders and Metro Council members on passing the countywide Duplex and Contextual Overlay ordinances.
On the heels of his announcement, we had a chat with Withers about his hopes, his plans and how his years of community service informed his candidacy. (For more background, read our ENOTY cover story.)
The East Nashvillian: What inspired you to run?
Brett Withers: “I was actually asked by quite a few folks to run over the summer. And based on the number of folks that asked me to do that and who they were and how much respect I had for them, I began to consider it. Taking a look at what our neighborhood needs as a neighborhood president myself and speaking with other neighborhood leaders, I decided to run to ensure that our neighborhood groups have good representation on the council.”
From your perspective, what are the biggest challenges we need to focus on in East Nashville for the next council term?
“One is traffic. I think East Nashville is attracting a lot of homeowners, but also a lot of visitors to our businesses that are emerging over here. So that is an issue that a lot of people talk about — wanting to figure out how we can balance growth in certain areas but also, 'How does everyone get in and out of here?'
“I’m really interested in affordable housing and finding ways that we can keep some of our artists and coffee-shop workers and the wide range of people that we have over here. There are a couple of different solutions that the city has started to talk about generally, and I haven’t formulated a position on that. But I’m a big advocate for rentals. That’s not always popular, but there are a lot of folks that are wanting to rent over here. So I’m a big advocate that we really may need to entertain apartments, or more apartments than what we have now.
“I have a lot of background with crime and safety awareness through [Eastwood Neighbors]. Obviously crime right now is sort of at a low point from what it’s been historically, but we have to remain vigilant on that and continue to work with the police department to keep tabs on it so that it doesn’t get back to where it was.
“And growth and development in general. I think that there is no such thing as too much notice to neighbors about when opportunities are coming. The reality is that anyone can go and file something at the plans department, and sometimes the council members themselves aren’t even aware that it’s been filed. But I really feel as a neighborhood leader that it’s really important to reach out as much as we can and let neighbors at a minimum learn about what proposals are coming their way and hopefully also to have a say in shaping those. That’s something I’ve worked at really hard and would commit to doing.”
Do you feel like heading up Eastwood Neighbors for all those years gave you some insight into what you’d be up against, and how hard you’d be working, as a Council member?
“A lot of the neighborhood leaders are really strong, particularly in District 6… I know how hard all of the neighborhood leaders work to try to balance different viewpoints within the neighborhood, and also to find good compromises... But also the neighborhood leaders in our area have been really strong at trying to get a handle on the growth that we’ve experienced in the last couple of years. We have all really learned how to work together pretty well, and recognize that different neighborhoods have different ways of approaching that and it’s not ‘one size fits all’ always.
“I have a lot of admiration for all of our neighborhood leaders, and it’s really encouraging to me to have the support of so many folks who are on the boards of the neighborhood groups, that they feel like I have done a good job of advocating at the council or the planning commission or historic zoning commission, advocating whatever the neighborhood’s position was. That’s a big vote of confidence.
“Also with some of the countywide ordinances that came up this year… I got to know a lot of the other neighborhood leaders across the county in some cases, and we banded together to rally the troops to get some of those passed and work with some of those council members. It takes 21 votes to pass a bill in the council, so that was part of our strategy that we came up with: to figure out which council members we had good relationships with and we could talk with to ensure that they would vote for some of these bills. And if they had concerns, to try to figure out what some of those were. So that’s a lot of experience working with a lot of the sitting council members… I also have pretty good relationships with some of the folks who are running for those open seats at the council, so I’m looking forward to hopefully joining them and seeing what other things we can get passed.”
Almost as long as you’ve been in East Nashville, you’ve been heavily involved in working to better East Nashville. Was there anything in particular that sparked your desire to get so involved?
"I bought my house in 2005… and at that time, the city was working on an update to the East Nashville Community Plan, and that’s something that I followed quite a bit. I knew there was a lot of excitement about East Nashville in general, and one of the things I really was attracted to in Nashville was how much people can participate in government decisions, at least sometimes. At that time, there would be reports on community meetings that happened and what folks were working on for that plan. So I was really encouraged by that.“Eastwood [then] was kind of a dangerous neighborhood, to be honest, compared to some of the other ones in District 6. So one of the things that really got me involved was a response to needing to get a handle on crime, and have a better neighborhood watch. That was one of the main things that spurred me to get involved with my neighborhood association initially, as a volunteer. And then I attended a Citizen Police Academy [class] that teaches neighborhood leaders how to work with the police and the court system and metro government on a variety of things, especially on public safety. I had a really positive experience there and started working on the Night Out Against Crime events. So that was kind of the main spark.“I had a couple break-ins myself — it was not all that uncommon at that time. So I just wanted to be part of the solution. Everyone here who experiences that, you feel violated and you feel angry, and it almost makes you feel isolated, like somebody knew that this was happening and didn’t do anything. And there’s a natural tendency to feel like you’re a victim and that your community wasn’t there for you. I definitely experienced those feelings, but I wanted to be part of the solution. It was really rewarding to me to go to that class and learn from other neighborhood leaders and learn to work with the police department. They can only help us if we call and let them know that something’s happening. Sometimes government is there for us, but we have to reach out as well to make that government work for us.”
KEEP UPFor more about Brett Withers and his District 6 Metro Council candidacy, visit his website and/or Facebook page.Neighbors and supporters are also invited to join Withers at his campaign launch party on Wednesday, Feb. 11 at Mad Donna’s, 1313 Woodland, from 6 to 8 p.m.