File Photo It has been a year since Charles Bannister stepped away from the county commission chairmanship. But friends say he doesn't regret resigning.
LAWRENCEVILLE -- He has become the butt of jokes, the symbol of government corruption, the example held up even when his name is never spoken.
For decades, he was making a name for himself in the halls of City Hall, the state Capitol and the county courthouse.
But now, that name is forever tainted. It is spat by a disillusioned electorate or spun, tongue firmly in cheek, by political powerbrokers.
Charles Bannister, once the most powerful man in Gwinnett, weathered a lot of storms in 2010 -- he had a recall effort thrown out in court and was exonerated after a DUI arrest.
But with a special grand jury investigating controversial land deals and threatening a perjury charge, he ended three decades of public life by disappearing from the political circuit. He didn't even hand-deliver his resignation letter last October, instead allowing his attorney to hand it to media gathered outside as a special grand jury convened to consider indicting him.
In the past 12 months, Bannister's face has only appeared at a handful of events -- a speech by the new governor, a meeting with business leaders.
But his presence has been felt in nearly every commission meeting at the Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center.
Even the election to replace Bannister as chairman was less about the candidates' experience and more about who could heal the public rift that was created when the man walked away instead of fighting the perjury allegation.
Who knows who made the better move: Bannister, who left without defending himself, or Kevin Kenerly, who waited weeks to resign after being indicted on a bribery charge, and then went all the way to the Georgia Court of Appeals to have the indictment thrown out.
Both men are still absent from the political life they lived for decades and both are vilified. Kenerly is facing a new indictment, but people at his local football field have decided to keep a marker in his honor up until the case is decided.
Bannister's friends say the Lilburn man has found a peace in retirement. He renovated his wife's childhood home and spends times with his grandkids.
But picking up a newspaper can't be the same.
"Everybody needs a name to put things to, and people have pinned things to Charlie's that are unjustified," said BJ Van Gundy, a friend of Bannister's who acted as his campaign manager. "It's unfortunate that Charlie got caught up in what appears to be truly unethical behavior by Kevin Kenerly."
Bannister declined to speak to the Daily Post for this story, but Van Gundy said his friend never did anything wrong and chalks up the public dismay to an electorate looking for a scapegoat.
He points out that the Supreme Court ruled that the special grand jury never had the power to indict, but said Bannister walked away because of the strain on his wife and children.
"He doesn't regret it. It was something his family encouraged him to do," Van Gundy said. "It's been a great relief for him to finally be out of the public eye after 30 years. He's finding it to be quite enjoyable."
Bannister isn't just retired from the daily grind of government work. Like any politician, his friends were in the public sector. He socialized at campaign events and GOP gatherings.
But he has only been to a handful in the past year.
"He never went into hiding," Van Gundy said. "He's always been comfortable in his own skin and he's comfortable with the people he served."
Bruce LeVell, chairman of the Gwinnett GOP, said Bannister made it to a breakfast several months ago, and there was no tension among the crowd.
"The voter has a different opinion, but his friends are still his friends," LeVell said, adding that instead of casting their opinions on Bannister, many talk about the "former administration," which could refer to Kenerly.
"The politicos know the real deal," he said, adding that the DUI arrest in June of 2010 began the strain on Bannister, who was a mayor and legislator before becoming Gwinnett's highest elected official.
"I think that was kind of the turning point, to be shackled up as the commissioner and going through all the public scrutiny when he was totally innocent," LeVell said. "I'm thinking he was straining to the point of, 'I'm tired.'"
While sympathetic, LeVell acknowledges the rift that Bannister's resignation caused in Gwinnett.
"It did put a relatively small dark cloud over the county, but I think we've healed from it very fast," he said, adding that he decided against running for the chairman's position because of the pressure that would come from rebuilding the county's reputation.
"I knew the first few years will be about healing the public's trust, not just policy changes," he said, adding that the economy issues compound the problem. "Obviously we can't afford any bump in the road."
Charlotte Nash, the woman who retired as county administrator when Bannister took office, said she knew that her campaign to replace Bannister would be about trust.
"It was an issue that needed to be focused on overall," Nash said, adding that other newly elected commissioners also wanted to forge a new identity.
In the past seven months since she took office as the new chairwoman, the board worked quickly to form a new land acquisition policy. A recent decision to fulfill a promise doing away with a bond levy in the millage rate, she said, was also about remaining truthful to the public. During recent debates on a controversial airport proposal, distrust was often verbalized, so the commission set up a citizens group to oversee the proposal process.
"We are recognizing the situation with people," she said. "I would hope there are things that are signaling to people (a new era)."
Nash said public trust will be on the minds of voters in 2012, not just in Gwinnett but across the nation, from the local City Hall to the White House.
"That's not necessarily a bad thing," she said. "It's a pretty important thing for all of us in public office to focus on."District Attorney Danny Porter, who called for the special grand jury to investigate land deals, agreed.
But he said he was surprised commissioners haven't done more to try to allay the fears of constituents. He thought they would have made bigger changes based on the grand jury presentments that blasted a process rife with politics.
In the end, though, he said Bannister's resignation and the controversy surrounding it had a big impact on the county.
"It's changed citizens' persepective toward their government. There is a good side to that and a bad side," he said. "People should be aware of what is going on in government, and they should make (leaders) accountable. But I'm not sure the county government has regained the trust that was lost."