Profile: Georgia Hiller Gets In Your Face
A force for good-or not? Georgia Hiller's aggressive style in pursuing her beliefs has made her a controversial Collier County commissioner.
Of all the things said about Collier County Commissioner Georgia Hiller—and there’s no shortage of opinion on the outspoken board chairwoman— nobody ever says she’s slow.
She talks fast. She drives fast. Her daily exercise sessions are full speed ahead. And her quick intelligence, admired by all, albeit grudgingly by some, is obvious immediately.
Take that velocity, add her drive to do things differently, season with high energy and hang on, because Hiller can fuel political firestorms that shape a whole new world in local government.
“I love change. I love new things,” Hiller says. “I ran because I wanted to change the way business was done in county government. I’ve worked hard at my job, and things are very different now than they were two years ago,” when she was first elected to the board.
Indeed. She’s used her experience as a lawyer, auditor and accountant to question county procedures, devoting hours to research and delving into detail that many elected officials dismiss.
She’s encouraged staff turnover, saying “the pruning has been extreme” in eliminating those less willing to follow the elected leaders—“the representatives of the people”—who should set policy and be in charge. Too often before, she says, staff was giving orders.
And along the way, she’s ruffled more than a few feathers. “When someone challenges the status quo, some people get upset,” says Commissioner Tim Nance, who’s often voted with Hiller since his election last November. “People get comfortable in the way things have always been done, and anyone who suggests a lot of change is controversial.”
Add to that Hiller’s strong personality. “She’s not bashful,” Nance says. “She’s very direct. She speaks forcefully, and sometimes, from a woman, that can be difficult for some people.”
Former commissioner Jim Coletta, who served two years with Hiller until he lost to Nance, takes a different view.
“She does have some good ideas, but she makes it very hard for others to go along with her,” Coletta says, adding that her people skills don’t always match her intellectual ability. “She’s disruptive. When she believes in something, she’ll do everything she can to get everybody to that point. If staff didn’t go along, or got on her bad side, she’d find ways to drive them out. There’s no negotiation, and no compromise. She’s the queen bee.”
Hiller is well aware of the critics. The Naples Daily News called her a “maverick” and has written about her sometimes-rocky relations in county government. Secure in the belief that she’s doing the right thing, Hiller shrugs it all off without a blink.
“I’m committed to doing the right thing, and I know I’m standing up for what’s right,” she says. “As they say, sticks and stones … It doesn’t matter to me what those people say. I was elected for a reason, and nobody will distract me from doing what I believe is right.”
If Hiller’s strength seems monumental, consider her background.
An only child, she was raised mostly by her father, a successful surgeon in Montreal, with help from his Hungarian family. She attended a private girls’ school, and spent many summers in Europe; her Russian mother survived internment in Auschwitz, and her father emigrated from Czechoslovakia just ahead of the communists.
As a result, she says, she speaks five languages, including Czech, German, Hungarian and French. Beyond that, “my family history has to do with my resilience,” she says. “I come from a line of survivors who did well in the face of terrible odds. It shapes my belief in a strong representative government and commitment to free speech.”
In 1979, at age 18, she left Canada to attend Florida Atlantic University, which she found during trips to family-owned property in Palm Beach County. She received an accounting degree and an MBA from FAU, and her law degree from Florida State University.
Visits to friends in Naples led to her family’s move there in 1996. At the time she was on Florida’s east coast, and the Gulf community’s beauty and relaxed ambiance was irresistible. She then worked in law—largely with international clients—and also became what she says her late husband called “the queen of pro bono” work. “Tony used to tell me I should run for public office because that was what so much of my work seemed to involve anyway,” she says.
Her husband died unexpectedly in 2007, leaving Hiller with two young children. After more than a year of mourning, she says, she discussed her next move with friends. “They reminded me how Tony always said I should run, and now would be the time to do that,” she recalls. Time wasn’t an issue: “If you’re disciplined and have good time management skills, you can do it,” she said.
In the meantime, Hiller volunteered her legal skills to Collier’s Clerk of Court Dwight Brock, who was engaged in long-running lawsuits against the county commission over his ability to audit county funds.
“With my background as an auditor and an attorney, no one could better see how the board was so wrong, and the clerk was so right,” Hiller says. “I was passionate about defending the clerk and his ability to audit. It’s an important check (on the commission’s power).”
Brock in turn supported Hiller’s candidacy and remains a fan. “Georgia Hiller is one of the most intelligent people I have ever known in terms of raw intelligence, and she has all the energy in the world,” he says. “She’s like the Energizer Bunny. She never stops. She’ll work 24/7 if she needs to.”
He suggests critics of her personal style object more to her political goals and may be jealous of her skills. “If you want to do something she thinks is wrong, then maybe her people skills diminish,” he says. “She’s very strong-willed, but she’s very principled. Rightly or wrongly, you will never get Georgia to agree with you if she does not think you are absolutely right. She’s an incredible advocate for what she believes.”
Nevertheless, he says Hiller did not seek his advice about her run for office in 2010. “She did not discuss that decision with me,” he says. “She told me she was running, and that was that. I knew she would be a good commissioner.”
Campaigning as “a new breed of politician,” a fiscal conservative opposed to corporate welfare and government as usual, she won the Republican primary with 48 percent, or 4,766 votes; the next candidate, Gina Downs, had 27 percent, 2,440 votes. She later crushed a token write-in to claim the office.
Between county knowledge gained at the clerk’s office and her legal and accounting expertise, “I had no learning curve. I could hit the ground running,” Hiller says of her election. “And I was elected to go against the status quo, I was the alternative candidate. I had a clear mandate to represent the people in my community who wanted me to represent them, not the special interests.”
Some question whether she’s swapped one special interest for another. Each Collier commissioner is elected by a small single district, not countywide, and Hiller has been criticized as catering more to a few wealthy residents and gated communities—who also helped her campaign in her northwest Collier district than the interests of the entire county.
That’s a concern for Downs.
“I have issues with her policies,” Downs says. “She seems more focused on what some supporters want than on what’s best for the county as a whole. Maybe some change was needed, but she contributes to dysfunction, then talks about how awful things are. She tears down with no plan to improve.”
Not true, says Hiller. “I call it weed and seed. We’ve been pulling up weeds and clearing the ground, and now we’re ready to start planting seed. We’re closing the chapter on a lot of bad things, and starting with good things to benefit the community.”
Hiller’s work has definitely been controversial. She was the leading voice of opposition in derailing a deal with Jackson Laboratory to build a biotech research facility near Ave Maria. She helped squash a similar deal with local orthopedics manufacturer Arthrex, leading the company to seek space in Lee County. These aren’t choices she loses sleep over.
She’s also confident in her outreach to all people, not just a vocal minority. “I’m doing speeches every day—Q&A is my favorite part. I’m at all kinds of events, all day long,” she says. “Everywhere I go, people talk to me. A trip to the grocery store takes four hours, but I love all that. A common thread will always surface. It becomes very clear to me what the message is.”
Making that message a reality through commission approval was the challenge. Early on, Hiller was often on the losing side of votes. Yet, she says, “it’s not my responsibility to persuade other commissioners. This is not about persuasion or emotion; it’s a business. I present them with the facts, the law and the fiscal impact, and how they vote is up to them. Their vote, once they know the facts, is how they’ll be judged.”
And since last fall’s election, the commission has changed. Newly elected Nance, plus long-time Commissioner Tom Henning, are more philosophically aligned with Hiller, making her chairman in January. Now she’s often on the winning side of votes, with less accompanying rancor, and some predict Hiller’s public demeanor will change as well.
“Georgia can be very warm, very charming and congenial,” says Peter Gaddy, a Hiller supporter who appreciates her close examination of county spending details. “But that can be difficult when you’re in the minority. Before the board changed, she was about 90 percent confrontational. Now she’s much less so, maybe 50-50.”
Hiller says it’s impossible for her to look far ahead in her political future. She thinks two terms should be enough for a commissioner— Collier has no term limits—but doesn’t go beyond that.
“Who knows where we’ll be or what our needs will be” then? she says. “I have to listen to the people and what they want me to do.”
More immediately, a softer side was somewhat in view at one recent political event: Hiller announced her plans to seek re-election to a second term on Feb. 14—Valentine’s Day. “That was deliberate,” she says with a smile. “I did it then because I love our Constitution, I love this community and I love the job. … I am driven to get things done.”
FIVE THINGS YOU PROBABLY DIDN’T KNOW ABOUT HER
• She has two children, a daughter in middle school and a son at Florida State University; and a dog: a cotton de tulear (which resembles a maltese or bichon) the family named “Elizabeth Periwinkle Swan.” The breed was developed in Madagascar and was a legendary companion for pirates, hence the name—“Elizabeth Swan” from Pirates of the Caribbean, and “periwinkle” as Madagascar’s national flower.
• Hiller is a “passionate” cook, favoring vegetarian cuisine and the advice of food guru Mark Bittman. Two special treats: dark chocolate and candied ginger.
• She exercises daily, with a variety of intense workouts, believing that physical fitness is essential for intellectual fitness and high energy. “I sleep like a baby,” she says.
• A voracious reader, Hiller set herself the goal as a youngster of reading the 100 most important books in literature. Since her husband’s death in 2007, however, she says it’s impossible to read fiction, and her reading now is devoted to more technical and governmental-related material.
• Single commissioners do have a social life; Hiller says being recognized makes restaurant visits “a different experience” that she still enjoys. As for a special person in her life, “I have met someone who is quite fascinating,” she says. “You can say I’ve been struck by a bolt of lightning, but let’s leave it at that.”