When Brett Nicholson was growing up, he never imagined running for elected office — or owning a gay bar, for that matter. But now, the human resource management professional and owner of the Liberty Bar — who long ago imagined a career playing oboe in a pit orchestra — is doing both. And with his extensive work experience, winning his race for Pontiac City Council, District 2, may be one step toward ending the gridlock plaguing the city’s government and services.
“In the city of Pontiac, we have a very dysfunctional relationship between our council and our mayor,” Nicholson said plainly. “And my career has been spent in human resource management. A lot of it’s been in employee relations: helping people sort out their differences, whether it’s with themselves or with another person.”
At the bare minimum, Nicholson said, elected officials should be expected to attend meetings and behave in a professional manner. This has caused a cascading effect: because of the conflict, many positions have been left unfilled and, consequently, city services are stalled, including things that taxpayers approved.
“Being a small business owner, and being a resident for the last eight years, I’ve had every issue that could potentially reach into needing to contact a city department, and getting the same answer over and over: we’re short-staffed; we’re doing the best we can do — those sorts of things,” Nicholson said.
From 2009 to 2013, Pontiac was under the oversight of an emergency financial manager who was authorized to make day-to-day executive and financial decisions for the city. Today, when the reason for a particular issue with the city is stated as stemming from the emergency financial management era, Nicholson’s not buying it.
“I think maybe the hardest thing … maybe just for me personally is the narrative of the emergency financial management,” Nicholson said. “That was eight years ago. We’ve emerged from that at this point. It’s almost like when you’ve been in a workplace and you hear, ‘This is how we do it,’ or, ‘This is the way we’ve always done it.’ If eight years later you don’t have your city services back up and running, as a taxpayer, you have to sit back and wonder what’s happening with your dollars.”
In addition to tackling gridlock in the way city government functions, Nicholson said infrastructure, as it relates to water and sewer in particular, is what he feels most affects residents’ lives that needs to be addressed. He said Pontiac has a newer sewer system but many people are still paying for multiple backups because the Department of Public Works is slow to respond.
“If we want to maintain our property values and prevent foreclosures, our DPW department needs to be more able to respond to these issues and prevent them through preventive maintenance measures,” Nicholson said. “They just don’t have the staff or the equipment to do it today, because we’ve not supported them in doing that.”
Other challenges Nicholson would like to take on include cutting the red tape preventing recreational marijuana dispensaries from opening in Pontiac, ending blight in the city and ensuring that employers in Pontiac hire city residents.
A thriving, diverse gayborhood
But Nicholson’s not complaining; there’s a lot Pontiac has to offer that gives him joy. It’s Pontiac’s diversity that particularly appeals to him, Nicholson said. Whether it’s the numerous communities of color in Pontiac or the neighborhood where he lives that has a surprising number of LGBTQ+ households, Nicholson said Pontiac owes that in part to its geographic centrality.
“Wherever you’re from, if you’re not from Pontiac, Pontiac can be a place that’s very inviting, very central for you,” Nicholson said. “While owning the bar…we saw a lot of our LGBT spaces closed. Flint’s last gay bar closed. So now Liberty Bar is, if you live in Flint, you’ve got two options. You can go to Lansing or you can go to Pontiac.”
Nicholson said the reason many people don’t recognize Pontiac as an LGBTQ-friendly place to live and visit is because, in his words, “it’s not Ferndale.” He proudly followed that by stating there are 11 gay households on his block.
“We have progressive dinners, and things like that,” Nicholson said. “And it’s hard, because people don’t think of Pontiac as an LGBT-friendly area just because … it’s not in your face; it’s not very clear that this is a place where gay people live. So for me, wanting to make sure that any community that exists within a community finds themselves … and finds that comfort that I’ve found, whatever we can do to support that, I think is really important.”
There’s a reason Nicholson has that desire to help others find community — and help his city thrive in the process.
“Being LGBT, being a member of many minority groups, I feel connected with anybody who feels that they are disadvantaged,” Nicholson explained. “And I think that Pontiac has been in a position of having disadvantaged feelings for a very long time, whether it’s socioeconomically, whether it’s the unfair burdens, maybe, that the county [permitted] before Dave Coulter’s leadership.”
Nicholson believes it’s time to stop talking about the years of emergency financial management and past corruption in city government. He said it’s time for Pontiac’s leaders to work together and for the community to continue to stick together.
“I imagine [with] the advocacy and that undying kind of march toward progress that happened within our little city, what we could do,” Nicholson said. “It takes people who really care and people who feel like this is their home or this is in their heart to do it, and I think I’m one of those people, because it’s just sort of what I’ve always done.”
Brett Nicholson’s campaign kick-off, a barbecue and park clean-up at Beaudette Park located at 786 Orchard Lake Road in Pontiac, will be held Saturday, June 5, from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. There will be a fundraiser later in the month at the Liberty Bar to benefit the Meals on Wheels Foundation. Learn more online at voteforbrett.com.