The Hiller effect: Maverick Collier commissioner a help or hindrance to county?

Collier County Commissioner Georgia Hiller, left, speaks with supporters Terry Pardue, right, and Bonnie Campbell during a break in a commission meeting July 26, 2011 in Naples. 'I support Georgia,' said Pardue. 'I think the commission has gone awry.' Lexey Swall/Staff

Photo by LEXEY SWALL // Buy this photo

Collier County Commissioner Georgia Hiller, left, speaks with supporters Terry Pardue, right, and Bonnie Campbell during a break in a commission meeting July 26, 2011 in Naples. "I support Georgia," said Pardue. "I think the commission has gone awry." Lexey Swall/Staff

Editor's note: Collier County Commissioner Georgia Hiller set aside 15 minutes Thursday for a face-to-face interview with Naples Daily News reporter Eric Staats. The interview ended up lasting 24 minutes longer than expected. This is the unedited 39-minute interview.

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— The victory party swirled around soon-to-be Collier Commissioner Georgia Hiller as she stood on a sidewalk outside an upscale North Naples restaurant on the muggy night she won her Republican primary last August.

“I’m a new breed of politician bringing a better breed of politics,” Hiller shouted over the din at AZN at the Mercato. “It’s a new dawning.”

Hiller’s new day has been a rude awakening for a wide cross-section of constituents, business leaders and county workers who say her governing style has been destructive — even embarrassing.

While Hiller recites a long list of accomplishments, her legislative agenda has not gotten a foothold and she often is on the losing end of votes.

Hiller says she’s just getting started from her seat at the left end of the County Commission dais.

“ ... Having only been on this commission for just a little over half a year, sitting up against commissioners who have sat there for 12 years, to be able to carry my own within such a short amount of time is quite an accomplishment,” Hiller said in an interview with the Daily News last week.

The Maverick

Hiller, an attorney by training, comes to meetings armed with questions — some would call them attacks — that turn seemingly routine matters into lengthy debates that fray commissioners’ nerves and roil the community.

“Clearly she is bright, well-schooled, articulate, energetic and clearly she is ambitious and she can be charming,” Greater Naples Area Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Michael Reagen said. “Style, I think, is wanting. She seems to be awfully self-absorbed, she can be off-putting, she has been abrasive and insulting, and frankly, can be a little over the top.”

Operating as a tough-as-nails interrogator, she has taken on the county’s purchasing policies, its economic development programs and the way it spends tourist tax dollars — frequently offering her own legal opinions and her own version of the facts. When others present legal opinions or facts that refute Hiller, she rarely backs down.

Hiller takes great pride in the way she prepares for the County Commission’s twice-monthly meetings, saying she “researches everything heavily” and doesn’t take what county staff provides her at face value.

Commissioners have urged her to get her questions answered before meetings rather than taking up time during meetings, a suggestion Hiller resists. She says if she has a question, the public might have the same question and deserves to have it answered in a public meeting.

A Daily News review of county records shows the 14 meetings commissioners held since Hiller has been on the board lasted 2 1/2 hours longer on average than did the 14 meetings over the same period in 2009 and 2010.

Commissioners and top administrators spent 6 1/2 hours, on average, at each meeting from December 2009 through July 2010 compared to an average of almost nine hours per meeting for the same period during Hiller’s tenure.

Hiller said her disagreements with staff members aren’t meant to demean them but to “see things get done right.”

In her interview with the Daily News, she made a point of saying that she frequently meets with county staff, at their request, and values them.

“I love what I do, I love the people I work with, I really enjoy all the people that I work with in county government,” Hiller said. “It’s an honor to be here.”

It didn’t always seem that way. When commissioners complained at an April meeting that Hiller was taking up too much staff time with her questions, tensions boiled over. Hiller vowed to stop meeting with staff altogether.

“I don’t need you, I don’t need you. I don’t need any of you,” she said as she pointed at County Attorney Jeff Klatzkow, County Manager Leo Ochs and administrators in the back of the room. “We’re done.”

Emblematic of her maverick persona, Hiller moved her main office from the County Commission suite at the government center to the county’s satellite offices on Orange Blossom Drive in her North Naples district.

While raising eyebrows at the main campus, the move drew applause from many constituents.

“It’s absolutely wonderful,” supporter Doug Fee said. “I think it’s smart on the part of Commissioner Hiller. She’s reachable. She’s open.”

Commissioner Donna Fiala says employees are demoralized and feel targeted by Hiller, but Fiala sees a silver lining.

“We’ve become more thorough,” Fiala said. “Everything they do will be challenged so I think they’ve become far more thorough ... that’s a good thing.”

Ochs said county staff members expect to be held accountable for their work, but they don’t want their qualifications or reputation impugned.

“There’s a perception at least that we’re approaching that,” he said.

Hiller dismisses complaints about her governing style.

“I think they’re going to have to get used to it,” Hiller said. “I have a duty to the people to ask questions where I don’t know the answer.”

Judging Georgia

Citing Hiller’s style of governing, some constituents and local business leaders weren’t willing to talk to the Daily News about her for the record.

Just stirring the pot isn’t going to help Hiller get anything done, said Chuck Roth, a write-in candidate against her in 2010 but a supporter nonetheless.

“I don’t think she’s been able to in fact cause anything to happen,” he said. “The voting is not in fact going in that direction.”

Asking questions and refusing to back down is success enough for supporter Ted Raia and other die-hard Hiller fans.

“She was voted in to do what she is doing and she shouldn’t be criticized for that,” said Raia, who lives in Pelican Bay.

Hiller’s style is hampering her ability to influence county policy, said Naples investment adviser and former NCH Healthcare System CEO Edward Morton.

“I think she would be well-advised to be more inclusive of county staff and others who are there to help her analyze issues and (take) less of a Lone Ranger approach,” Morton said.

“I think there are some issues she raised that do have considerable merit, but often the merit gets lost in the firestorm. You can’t antagonize and influence. She has antagonized a lot of people,” he said.

Business leaders said her demeanor is counterproductive to what should be the top priority: Stimulating the local economy and creating jobs.

Her opposition to the now-defunct Jackson Lab project and uncertainty about whether Arthrex Inc. will expand in Collier County or build a manufacturing plant in Lee County is proof, they said.

Hiller said all of her votes, not just those against economic incentives for Arthrex, are based on the law and the facts, not on politics or whether someone supported her campaign, as Arthrex did.

“I guess I’m not like the other politicians out there,” she said.

“Collier County won’t recover from her first six months in office for a long time to come,” Commission Chairman Fred Coyle said.

Commissioner Fred Coyle and Commissioner Georgia Hiller during a meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2009, in Naples. David Albers/ Staff

Photo by DAVID ALBERS // Buy this photo

Commissioner Fred Coyle and Commissioner Georgia Hiller during a meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2009, in Naples. David Albers/ Staff

Commission Chairman Fred Coyle said Hiller’s work against Jackson and Arthrex has left an impression that Collier County is unfriendly to business — an impression he thinks will be long-lasting.

“Collier County won’t recover from her first six months in office for a long time to come,” Coyle said.

Commissioners divided

Hiller’s most frequent ally on the board has been Commissioner Tom Henning, who is up for re-election in 2012. The two often form a minority of two votes against commissioners Jim Coletta, Coyle and Fiala. Coletta and Fiala also are up for re-election in 2012.

An email exchange weeks after Hiller’s election portended the friction.

In response to an email from Fiala asking for specifics, Hiller denied that she had told the Pelican Bay Men’s Club that commissioners were corrupt. Hiller also referred to what she said was Fiala’s misunderstanding that Clerk of Courts Dwight Brock had started a political action committee to oppose Fiala’s and Coletta’s re-elections.

“Maybe you should be more careful in the future about your sources of information,” Hiller wrote.

Hiller, who was a volunteer in Brock’s office for more than two years, knows most of the people in his office, Brock said. She got Brock’s endorsement during the campaign and now has weekly meetings with his Finance Director Crystal Kinzel to discuss county business, Brock said.

“She asks my staff a lot of questions and we provide her with a great deal of information,” he said. “From my perspective as the clerk and as a citizen, that’s the way it should be.”

In Daily News interviews, commissioners reflected at varying lengths on Hiller’s impact on county government.

“I will not comment on the performance or lack of performance of any one commissioner,” Coletta wrote in an email. “I can tell you that I am working hard or harder than I have ever worked before to advance the public’s good and I won’t allow for anything or anyone to deter me from that goal.”

Henning also begged off: “The citizens elected Commissioner Hiller, and it’s up to the citizens to judge her impact, not ... other commissioners.”

Without naming who he thought was to blame, Henning decried the state of the County Commission.

“We don’t have decorum. We’re not civil to the public. We’re not civil to each other,” he said. “We’re very dysfunctional.”

Fiala said she’s never seen the commission as politically motivated as now.

“At the commission level itself, we don’t seem to be accomplishing much of anything,” Fiala said. “That’s sad.”

“The House of Pain”

David Jackson has a name for the County Commission board room.

Jackson, the county’s economic and community development director, waited for six hours Tuesday to answer Hiller’s questions about spending $839 per person to send Bayshore Community Redevelopment Agency advisory board members to an October redevelopment association conference in Orlando.

When Hiller mistakenly referred to the conference in the past tense, Jackson tersely corrected her. Hiller apologized, blaming the long meeting.

“That happens when you come to the House of Pain,” Jackson said.

County staff and commissioners chuckled, some nervously, but Jackson wasn’t laughing.

© 2011 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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