Rick Badie's Gwinnett: Take another look at Hill era

In 2006, former Gwinnett County Commission Chairman Wayne Hill underwent heart surgery five weeks before Election Day. He was in a contest against Bobby Reese for the state House District 98 seat.

Hill lost by more than 13 percentage points.

“I didn’t feel like I put my everything into it,” the three-term county chairman said. “So when [Reese] decided to get out [of the 2010 race], I decided to get in.”

He's back, vying for a House seat that primarily covers Suwanee, Sugar Hill and Buford. Hill’s a Gwinnett native. He loves the county he grew up in and helped build. Critics argue he overbuilt.

As chairman, they wanted him to post signs at gateways that declared Gwinnett closed to further development.

Now, some pine for the Hill era. A budget gap that has required the elimination of 250 jobs, deferred projects, reduced library hours and closed the Dacula branch has some folks questioning current leaders.

Some in this community who helped boot Hill in 2004 for Chairman Charles Bannister wonder if Gwinnett was better off with Hill. Oddly, it’s got some of them thinking, or rethinking, a politician this newspaper tagged the “sultan of sprawl.”

Recently, I’ve talked to residents who, during Hill’s era, laid blame at his feet for packed schools, roads and upticks in crime.

Nowadays, they lament — some jokingly, others seriously — that the county operated more efficiently under “King Hill.”

Imagine that.

Hill’s heard the talk. It’s safe to say, though, the sources are part of his circle of influence. Not detractors. Still, the fact remains. A contingent of friends and foes wouldn’t mind if he ran things at the Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center.

“Oh yeah,” he said laughing, when asked if he gets approached about a potential County Commission bid. (I’ll give you his answer later in this column).

In 2003, the county hosted an open house so residents could tour the Gwinnett Arena before it’s inaugural season. Hill was there, awestruck like everybody else. He, too, apparently was wide-eyed and bowled over by the wow factor of what has become a premiere venue in metro Atlanta, if not the country.

Obviously, he was proud of the venue, of what the county had accomplished. And whether you disliked him, his politics, management style or take on property rights issues, you always got that sense of county pride whenever he was out and about.

Fast forward to 2009.

“It breaks my heart to see what is happening,” Hill said, referring to budgetary issues that have befallen the commission and bludgeoned the community. “I care about my county; it’s been my life for 67 years, so it’s dear to me, and I just hate it when we are closing libraries.”

He recalled the grim reality Charlotte Nash, then a chief official, laid out for him his first year as chairman: Gwinnett was on track to rack up a $60 million deficit by his fourth year in office. Take action.

“We had rough times,” Hill said, “but we just reacted to them. We were always looking into the future. We had a [commission] board that was on the same page. We fought and fussed, but everyone was on the same page when it came to doing what was best for the county. I’d describe it like a family, I guess.”

Now, back to that question.

Will he ever again seek a commission post or its chairmanship?

“That probably [is not] going to happen,” he said. “I had 12 years of it day and night. I probably wouldn’t go back, but you never say ‘never.’ ”

Ever.