By David Wickert , Patrick Fox , Shane Blatt
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Gwinnett Commission Chairman Charles Bannister, the top elected official in one of Georgia’s most populous counties, abruptly resigned Friday after appearing before a special grand jury investigating county land purchases.
Bannister’s departure came on the day the grand jury wrapped up its nine-month investigation of a series of land deals that appeared to benefit developers and others with ties to several commissioners, including the chairman.
In a prepared statement distributed by his attorneys, Bannister said the events of the past year – which included his arrest and exoneration on a DUI charge – “placed an undeserved strain on my family and has threatened my own health.
“I believe that stepping down at this time is necessary to preserve my family’s well-being and will allow the important business of Gwinnett County to move forward without further distraction,” Bannister said.
Bannister’s lawyers, Mike Bowers and Craig Gillen, handed out the statement to reporters outside the grand jury room, with Bowers declaring: “It’s over. It’s over.”
Commissioner Shirley Lasseter, the board’s vice chairwoman, will serve as acting chairwoman until Bannister’s seat is filled.
“I will be doing a balancing act,” Lasseter told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “But I promise I will do it with the greatest intent of giving Gwinnett County my all to make sure the citizens are satisfied and the county employees get through this transition.”
The earliest date a special election could be held is March 15, said Lynn Ledford, Gwinnett County elections director. Because the election would be countywide, costs would run between $750,000 and $1 million, she said.
Already, some are considering a run for Bannister’s seat. They include county GOP chairman Bruce LeVell, former county Commissioner Lorraine Green, Dacula Mayor Jimmy Wilbanks, Suwanee Mayor Dave Williams and Vincent Passariello, a Democrat who challenged Bannister for his seat in 2008.
The resignation capped a difficult year for Bannister, among the best-known and longest-serving politicians in Gwinnett County. He already had survived a recall effort rejected by a judge and a drunken driving arrest that later led to an apology from Sheriff Butch Conway when a blood test showed the commission chairman had no alcohol in his system.
“I know Charlie Bannister’s character, and Charlie Bannister’s character is to not have ever done anything illegal,” said B.J. Van Gundy, Bannister’s campaign chairman. “That’s not to say that between the recall on him and the false arrest for DUI and now these issues that this hasn’t been incredibly trying on his family.”
The grand jury began its investigation in January after a series of Atlanta Journal-Constitution articles drew attention to land deals in which Gwinnett taxpayers might have paid millions of dollars more for properties than they were worth, the newspaper reported.
Commissioner Kevin Kenerly, who also appeared before the grand jury Friday, championed two of five parkland purchases detailed in the AJC articles. Bannister and Commissioners Green and Lasseter advocated other purchases. In each case the commissioners had ties to developers or others involved in the deals. The newspaper found that appraisals on the properties appeared inflated, which meant the county paid too much for the parcels.
In a statement, County Administrator Glenn Stephens sought to assure Gwinnett residents that Bannister’s departure would not affect county services.
“Citizens should expect county government’s normal day-to-day operations to continue during this transition period. Gwinnett County Government is a strong, well-managed organization comprised of capable leadership and employees, and they will keep the important work of county government moving forward,” his statement said.
Sabrina Smith, who leads Gwinnett Citizens for Responsible Government, was pleased by Bannister’s resignation.
“I think it’s good news for Gwinnett County,” Smith said. “I think he was very nonresponsive to the people in Gwinnett County as far as their issues. He didn’t listen. People told him loudly and clearly that we did not agree with the things he was doing. People are sick and tired of politicians who push through what they want vs. what the people who elect them want.”
Randall DeVault of Dacula, who has led three efforts in the past year to recall Bannister, echoed that sentiment.
“The people now have the opportunity to replace Mr. Bannister with somebody who is not connected to the system that has been running things for a long time,” he said.
Lawrenceville Mayor Rex Millsaps said it’s unfortunate when “anything like this happens to an elected official because it puts a stigma on all elected officials. I hate it for Charles and his family.”
Bannister’s immediate predecessor as chairman, Wayne Hill, said: “I’m shocked. That’s all I can say at this point.”
Bannister defeated Hill in the 2004 primary, then won the general election by a landslide. He won a second term in 2008.
Beyond the DUI and recall issues, Bannister faced mounting criticism during his second term over a tax increase last year and a countywide garbage plan drawn up behind closed doors.
As chairman, Bannister was the top official of a government that manages a $1.7 billion annual budget and serves nearly 800,000 residents. From 2006 through 2008, Georgia Trend magazine named Bannister one of its 100 Most Influential Georgians.
His salary at the time of his resignation was $61,387.10.
Bannister had said earlier this week that he appeared before the grand jury twice this summer.
The chairman also testified about the land purchases at a July court hearing on a recall petition against him. The petition was dismissed. In that hearing Bannister said he has never profited from any action taken by the Board of Commissioners.
The outcome of the investigation won’t be known at least until Monday, when Superior Court Judge Michael Clark is expected to formally accept the grand jury’s findings.
District Attorney Danny Porter has not said whether any public officials will be indicted.
Staff writer Andria Simmons contributed to this article.