Liz Gilland spent an afternoon in her yard earlier this week, attacking a kudzu plant before it had the chance to take over.
A simple, quiet afternoon is something Gilland has rarely been able to enjoy over the last seven years as chairwoman of the Horry County Council. Like many things in her personal life, taking a breather has often taken a back seat to packed schedules of meetings, constituent concerns, fundraisers and press conferences, she said, but that's about to change. Gilland announced in March that, for the first time in 16 years, she will not seek elected office this November.
Even while relishing the quiet of her yard, Gilland said she knows she'll miss the job.
"Pulling down weeds, I always think of this like politics. You know when I see them in there, I just sink my teeth in and start pulling until I get rid of them. That's kind of how I've worked for the county, too. When I see something wrong, I just sink my teeth in until it's fixed," she said.
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Pushing forward and looking back
By most accounts, Gilland, who will celebrate her 60th birthday in May, has had a rough year both politically and personally.
She has faced criticism and political scrutiny for administrative oversights that led to a $45,000 fine from the State Ethics Commission, for pushing both buttons during a vote on an amendment to a change to ordinances concerning the motorcycle rallies and for commenting that she preferred not to hire a female administrator.
Despite a tumultuous year, Gilland said she is proud of the changes she's been a part of at the county during her tenure, and quickly interjected that she has nine months to continue working for residents.
"There are a lot of things that I think we all need to continue to look at, including ways to bring jobs to this community. I have some things in mind," Gilland said. "I've always thought that it was much more important to finish well than to begin well, and I'm not finished yet."
Many of those who know Gilland best used the same simple phrase to explain her headline-gathering year: "That's just Liz."
"She is a unique person to work with. She kind of reminded me of my favorite country singer," said former Horry County administrator Danny Knight. "When he performed, the band never knew what he was going to do. He might start by singing the fourth verse of a song, or he might sing the first verse four times. You had to be on your toes. That's kind of how Liz was. You had to pay attention. She did things her way, and in the end things seemingly always worked out."
Knight served as administrator with Gilland for six years of her chairwoman's tenure and four of her nine years representing District 8 on the council.
He said she was unconventional, but determined to get things done. Gilland has often said her habit is to speak her mind first and apologize later when necessary.
Coastal Carolina University spokeswoman Martha Hunn served as Horry County's first public information officer in the '90s and remained friends with Gilland after leaving the county. Hunn said when Gilland took office in 1994, the council was ready for something unconventional.
"In those days, back when Liz started, council meetings went late into the night. They were often contentious between council members and it was often a packed house of people who had concerns they wanted addressed or who wanted to see the show. Sometimes the council met numerous times in a week, late into the night each time," she said. "Liz changed the tone on the dais. She's really been the right leader for the right time. She's been the one with the time span as chairman to get in there and make the best changes for a good, healthy council."
Hunn said one of the first qualities she noticed about Liz was the way she interacted with citizens during public comment sessions, a quality that has continued throughout her tenure as chairwoman.
"When folks came up and spoke at public input, I remember that other council members seemed uncomfortable if people came with critical comments about the county. Others might look down at their papers or look away, but not Liz. She would look people in the eye. She would give them this very thoughtful look and she would just listen," she said. "I think that's indicative of her as a leader, she really listens to what people in the community have to say."
During council meetings, residents who come with concerns are often met with a knowing look from Gilland, who will nod along as they talk. She then often offers a colloquialism from her parents or grandparents, or a personal story to show that she can relate to their concern.
For Gilland, politics has always been personal.
Gilland was working in the Christian music business in Nashville when her mother had some health problems that brought her back to her hometown of Conway in the early '90s. She thought she would only be back for a few months, but she said some feeling told her that she should stay. She pitched a Sunday morning Christian music show to a local radio station and became a well-heard voice along the Grand Strand for four hours every Sunday.
A few months into the program, Gilland said she was reading the newspaper and saw an article about a zoning change to allow adult entertainment venues in a portion of the unincorporated county.
"Nationally, such outrageous things like topless car washes and topless doughnut shops had become the trend around the country. At the same time, we presented ourselves as a family resort community. These things cannot co-exist. If we don't stand up for the beach as we know it, then we're going to lose it," she said. "I encouraged people to join me at this zoning board meeting. Then I popped into a song."
Gilland and the dozens of others who showed up for the meeting won the fight. She was encouraged by supporters to run for state office, but declined and took a few months to consider her options before settled on running for county council in 1994.
Her first night on the dais, Gilland said she knew it would continue to be a fight.
"I got beat up every night, because I would raise concerns and ask questions, instead of just accepting decisions," she said. "I think that's part of the reason so many people voted for me for chairman, I think they were tired of seeing me get beat up on television."
Hunn said she had never seen a council member research and study decisions as deeply as Gilland.
"You could tell that she took the responsibility very seriously, and you could tell she had the long view for the county in mind when she made decisions," she said.
That drive has caused some issues for Gilland in the last year and a half. Her schedule would often start at 7 a.m. and be packed into the evening, when she would go home, feed her animals, and take her dog and dinner to visit her mother, who was being cared for in a nursing home. She often didn't get home until 10 or 11 p.m. and would fall asleep without taking care of some of the day-to-day things that she said others may take for granted.
The oversight in checking mail caused some friction for Gilland, including some issues with traffic tickets, a suspended license, and an unanswered notice from the State Ethics Commission that she had incorrectly filed some campaign finance paperwork from her 2006 campaign for re-election to the chairman's seat.
"I will say this, I had been on council for eight years before I sat in the big seat, and I thought I knew what it meant to be chairman, and I didn't have a clue. I was overwhelmed by the weight of it, the demands of it, and the energy it took. The first six months blew by and all I seemed to do was race from one thing to another, to another," she said. "My schedule was never the same from week to week or from day to day."
"I think I'll miss it terribly at times, but I also think there will be a great freedom in being able to be just a regular person without having to worry about headlines and being able to make mistakes without having it trumpeted on the paper and on TV."
Councilman James Frazier has served with Gilland during her entire tenure on the council. He also has a long standing relationship with Gilland's family and is a volunteer at the nursing home where Gilland's mother was staying.
"She's a tough lady. It took me a while to get to know her as an adult, but we get along well, like hand and glove," Frazier said. "I would also stop and see her mama and we would have a big laugh whenever I was in there. Nine times out of 10 Liz would always be there by her mom's side. She really cared for her."
Frazier served as a pall bearer when Gilland's mother passed away in late January.
Gilland said her decision not to seek re-election this year did not revolve around any of the events of this year, personal or political. She said during her announcement at a March county council meeting that politics had gotten vicious during the 2008 Myrtle Beach elections and she didn't know if she was strong enough personally to handle an ugly election, but she added, "I think I could have beat Howard Barnard," the District 5 County Councilman who entered the chairman's race in January.
Gilland said she's interested in continuing her work with economic development in Horry County after she steps down next January, but she said she'll probably mull her options over the next few months.
She and many of the people who have served with or for Gilland will likely also spend time mulling over her accomplishments and her influence on the council, the county and the community.
"Liz has held her own on a council of 11 men. She's a determined lady. If she says she's going to get something done, she does," Frazier said.
For Gilland, the things she is most proud of are her trust in the county staff enough not to micromanage them, and changing council policy to make government more open. She said she hopes the council continues to conduct business in open session rather than in closed-door executive sessions, a once-weekly practice she said she has now mostly eradicated.
"I was determined that I was not going to sit in the big seat and be in charge of the council with how they used to act ... when it was full of bickering and back biting. A council acting in such a away that it was disrespectful to each other and the people it represented, I said we are not acting that way," she said.
"We do things a lot better now than I think we ever have. A lady stopped me in a store the second week of my chairmanship, and she said, 'I used to watch the council meetings for entertainment, now I watch them for information.' That's one of the best things I've ever heard."