Bannister's career hurt by disputes

Charles Bannister

Charles Bannister

LAWRENCEVILLE -- As a career politician in the Georgia Legislature, Charles Bannister was known to fly under the radar.

But in six years as head of the county commission, the Lilburn man has been at the center of controversy after controversy, ending a 40-year political career Friday with his resignation the day a grand jury concluded an investigation into land acquisitions.

Bannister's resignation Friday capped what he called a "trying year," punctuated by public backlash over commission decisions to raise taxes, change the county trash plan and consider privatization of the county airport, as well as an unsuccessful recall attempt and his arrest in a now-notorious DUI debacle. A possible indictment or arrest over the land deals could come as soon as Monday.

"Scrutiny is so big now. I'd never dream this is what the world has come to," said Commissioner Kevin Kenerly, who also faced the grand jury Friday. "I'm going to keep fighting the fight, but I'm not 71 years old," he said of the chairman.

Many of the county's top officials were saddened by the news of Bannister's resignation, and while a special election is likely early next year, no one quickly jumped to announcing a run to replace him, although Gwinnett Village Community Improvement District Director Chuck Warbington has expressed interest.

"I think he really served the public with good intentions," said Shirley Lasseter, the commissioner who was escalated from vice-chair to chairwoman by the resignation. "It's bittersweet. You certainly hate to see someone have to leave his office before the term is up."

Rex Millsaps, the mayor of Lawrenceville, said Bannister was an ally when he served in the Legislature, but over the past few years he has clashed with officials in local cities. The county is embroiled in a lawsuit with all 15 Gwinnett cities, after failing to reach an agreement on service delivery and taxes.

"I feel sorry for Charles and his family to go through that," Millsaps said. "But this situation, it kind of puts a shadow on all elected officials, but hopefully we'll move past it and move on."

Bannister's life in politics began with a pothole.

Angry over the inferior roads that caused his wife Glenda's tire to blow, the insurance salesman ran first for the Lilburn City Council, then as the city's mayor.

After serving in the Marines, the Tucker native set out on a career in politics that only had one two-year break.

He was elected to the Georgia House of Representatives in 1985, and only lost one election in the next 25 years.

In 2004, the Republican who had not been able to accomplish much in a Democrat-controlled legislature seemed poised to be named to a position of authority when the GOP took over under the Gold Dome.

But instead, Bannister decided to take on three-term incumbent commission Chairman Wayne Hill.

"I love Gwinnett County far more than politics or political ambition," he said at the time. "This is my home, my children's home and my grandchildren's home."

In his time in office, he concentrated on revitalization and business recruitment, creating many tax incentives that have helped draw business even as the economy has slowed.

But controversies have marred the last several years. Despite a tight victory in 2008 to gain a second term, many residents quickly grew impatient.

After a first recall effort died last year, a second preliminary petition gathered enough signatures to begin a drive, but a judge sided with Bannister this summer, saying the application was too vague.

In June, a sheriff's deputy arrested Bannister after he was seen drinking beer at a local restaurant and leaving in a county-owned vehicle.

While the 71-year-old reportedly failed a field sobriety test, his blood alcohol and a breath test both registered zero. The charges were dropped, and Sheriff Butch Conway apologized for the arrest.

"He's been through a lot," Commissioner Mike Beaudreau said of the embattled commissioner, now facing a possible indictment as a special grand jury wraps up an investigation into controversial land deals.

Bannister was expected to appear before the grand jury Friday, when he announced his resignation.

Beaudreau said he spoke to Bannister Friday morning and knows the decision to resign was difficult.

Now, leaders are struggling to finish out their own tough year, with two new commissioners to be decided in an election next month and the chairman's permanent replacement likely to come to a vote next year.

Some are optimistic, despite the despairing economic situation.

"Gwinnett County is much bigger than any one individual," said Jim Maran, president of the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce. "We have a great professional staff and leadership at the county and so much positive momentum building. From the upcoming creation of the Georgia Tech's new (Advanced Technology Development Center) office at our UGA campus to the continued relocation of high wage jobs from companies like NCR, that momentum and those successes will continue for Gwinnett."

And while the four-decade political career of Charles Bannister has come to an end, his legacy isn't likely to be written until a jury possibly decides his fate.