Retiring City Commissioner Betsy Crossley talks Brentwood leadership, future

Retiring City Commissioner Betsy Crossley talks Brentwood leadership, future

By RACHAEL LONG / Photo by Rachael Long

After a career in Brentwood leadership spanning 20 years, first as a planning commissioner, then as a city commissioner who served two terms as Mayor, Betsy Crossley is ready to pass the torch.

Looking forward

Her sons have both recently married, and she wants to be able to be present when the grandkids begin to arrive. She also wants to spend more time with her father, who is 96 years old and lives in Georgia.

“He wants to take a road trip to Florida to visit his brother, and he wanted me to take him,” Crossley said. “So, we’re gonna go down to Florida.”

In her newfound free time, Crossley also plans to work with some nonprofits, mentioning The Davis House and and adult literacy programs.

And when they both retire, Betsy and her husband George plan to sail the East Coast.

They’re not total novices when it comes to sailing — they were even engaged on a sailboat. But Crossley said a test-run in the Caribbean next month will help give them more experience “with a little bit of blue water.”

A public service

Crossley said she never thought she’d be a politician, or a teacher, for that matter. In her lifetime, she’s been both.

Before moving to Brentwood, Crossley lived in North Carolina and taught anatomy and biology at Mount Taber High School. She was also an adjunct faculty member at Wake Forest University.

When she was 13-years old, Crossley said she remembers being asked the age-old question: “What do you want to do when you grow up?” Back then, she didn’t have the perfect answer but said she knew what she wouldn’t be: a teacher or a politician.

“God laughed and said, ‘Well, we’ll see about that!’” Crossley said.

Crossley cuts the ribbon on a $9 million expansion of The Heritage in 2013. // FILE

First elected to the Board of Commissioners in 2007, Crossley has served on numerous committees and boards, including the Tree Board and the Brentwood Library Board. She’s also been a planning commissioner, a historic commissioner, a member of the Williamson County Chamber of Commerce, the Williamson County Economic Development Council and the Brentwood Noon Rotary Club.

Crossley calls herself a lifetime learner, and that began at an early age. She says she used to play the musical instruments her brothers would bring home from the school band. Now, Crossley said she plays more than 11 instruments, including the bagpipes.

Someone constantly eager to learn more, Crossley said she has a detail-oriented personality. She described her colleagues at the city as incredibly kind and patient with her curiosity.

“I’m sure they got tired of my asking questions,” Crossley said with a laugh. “I was the 4-year old that always asked ‘Why?’”

Despite her constant search for legal background and in-depth explanations of an issue, Crossley said she was “never without an answer” from city staff members.

And while learning what being a government leader is all about was meaningful to her, Crossley said some of the best parts have been the opportunity to work with and get to know citizens.

“Being able to do more than I thought I was going to be able to do to help folks,” Crossley said. “That’s really why I got into it to begin with.”

Lessons of a lifetime

Some of the most difficult challenges Crossley faced during her tenure were working with Tractor Supply to build in Brentwood, whether the city would offer tax incentives and the Tapestry at Brentwood apartment complex. Crossley said she remembers the exact date the Tractor Supply decision was made, simply because it was so contentious at the time.

The apartments, she said, were unprecedented. But in the midst of uncharted waters, Crossley took a step back. She knew growth was imminent in Brentwood and decided to ask the question, “How can we make this growth work for us?”

Crossley, left, during a term as mayor, presides over a ceremony representing funds turned over to recreation providers. // FILE

But one of the most difficult parts about serving as an elected official, Crossley said, also happens to be the very essence of the job: providing a substantial future for the city without knowing what the future holds.

“You don’t have an 8-ball,” Crossley said.

Even so, Brentwood is regarded as a leader among other municipalities in the state, which Crossley said often look to the city for answers. Brentwood, she continued, is a leader even at the state level.

And Crossley would know.

She recently completed 10 years of service to the Executive Board of Tennessee Municipal League, which represents the interest of all state municipalities.

Crossley was also the first woman ever to be elected to the Tennessee Local Development Authority where she sat with the state’s constitutional officers.

“I was just amazed that I was sitting there with the Treasurer and the Secretary of State,” Crossley said. “It was good to be the first woman … it showed me that I should appreciate the job that they’re doing at the state much more.”

That experience, she said, gave her a real understanding of the gravity of taking care of the state’s money.

And being a city commissioner inspired Crossley to grow within herself. She says her time as a city leader was a surprise to her; she never thought she would be outgoing in the ways she’s become.

“It’s interesting how when you meet the good ole’ boys in certain circles, it’s just a challenge to me to say, ‘I’m gonna go sit at their table, on purpose,’” Crossley said. “Just to let them know it’s OK, it’s good to know other people,” Crossley said.

The balance in disagreement

If there’s one way to describe her perspective in serving Brentwood government, Crossley said it’s been to always find a balance.

Breaking ground in 2017 for the Franklin Road widening are, from left, Commissioner Ken Travis, Mayor Jill Burgin, TDOT Commissioner John Schroer, Rep. Charles Sargent, Gov. Bill Haslam, Franklin Mayor Ken Moore, Rep. Glen Casada, Rep. Sam Whitson, and Commissioner Betsy Crossley. // FILE

She has a process for considering any item that comes across the commission. Before she can make a decision, Crossley said she has to look at the issue by itself, then in context of what’s going on around the issue, and finally, with a “360 view” — how will the issue impact the city overall?

“Everything that I do has to be balanced,” Crossley said. “I have to have the institutional memory as well as the vision.”

A forward-thinker, Crossley said she leans toward the future and doesn’t mind change if it’s positive.

That perspective has ruffled a few tail-feathers over the years, Crossley said.

While most people who disagree often walk away from an argument, Crossley cited an encounter once where a person was being rather hostile, even calling her a liar. It was at a Preserve Brentwood meeting, where Crossley said people often “vehemently” disagreed with her.

But after a few minutes of the confrontation Crossley said John Miles, a fellow Rotarian of many years, stepped in to defend her integrity.

Crossley said she and Miles rarely agree on policy, but that day, Crossley said, he was her knight in shining armor.

“I’ve never forgotten that moment,” Crossley said of Miles. “I have the utmost respect for John Miles … no finer gentleman exists.”

Crossley said the real delight of public service is when good people can come together, disagree and still find a way forward.

Passing the torch

Four seats on the Board of Commissioners are up for grabs during the 2019 Municipal Election. In May, the board could see four new faces.

To those who step into the role of commissioner, Crossley has some advice.

From left: Brentwood Police Assistant Chief Thomas Walsh, Capt. Alan Hardcastle, Commissioner Betsy Crossley in 2017. // FILE

“Talk to people that live in Brentwood, listen to what they have to say,” Crossley said. “Don’t just talk to them when they have a problem, talk to them about what their ideas might be.”

She also hopes new city leaders will keep an institutional memory and search for balance in their decisions, whether it be financial planning or in terms of growth.

Some of the challenges she anticipates new leaders may face, by and large, are the logistics that come with a growing city, namely, traffic.

Crossley said while Brentwood itself doesn’t play a huge role in the traffic problem — because the city has such a narrow stretch town of where traffic comes through — the leadership must be a partner in navigating a solution. If not, the city may lose its ability to have a say in whatever solution surrounding areas implement.

“I think we have to be very cognizant of the fact that there is a regional issue of traffic, and we can’t ignore it,” Crossley said. “One day it’s going get to be gridlock.”

The new board of commissioners will face its own set of challenges, just as Crossley did during her tenure. After all this time, Crossley says she certainly can’t quit serving the city cold turkey.

But she’s ready to continue working with Brentwood from the other side of the gavel.

When asked if residents could still find her at city meetings come June, she was quick to say: “Oh yeah, definitely.”

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