FLOWERY BRANCH — Diane Hirling once used to bristle at the negative news reports in Flowery Branch, the town she had adopted since moving to the area from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in 1992.
This was a town where leaders couldn’t get along, city staff came and went and the City Council was more of a revolving door than a stable governmental body.
“I hate politics. ... All I want to do is the right thing for the residents of Flowery Branch and leave the politics out of it,” said Hirling, during an interview Wednesday after a City Council meeting that included her swearing-in ceremony.
Hirling’s foray into politics began with a leisurely drive into the city. She and her husband, Robert, spent a year in Gainesville before settling in Flowery Branch.
In her first time passing City Hall on Main Street, Hirling told her husband, “I would either like to be the city clerk or a probate judge here.”
She became city clerk in 2001 and left in 2004 because of some troubles brewing in the city.
“I don’t like controversy. I don’t like bickering and so forth,” said Hirling, a paralegal for 30 years.
She was asked in 2005 to run for her first four-year term as mayor to see if she “could bring respectability and stability” back to the city.
“At that time, there was a lot of controversy. I was embarrassed to say I lived in Flowery Branch,” Hirling said. “And I figured that, if I ran and could change it, I would try.”
Media reports on the city’s goings-on — including four city managers in two years — reached far and wide.
“I had a friend in Oregon who heard about Flowery Branch,” Hirling said.
She can’t quite put a finger on why the city was under such a dark cloud.
“I don’t want to say good old boys fighting among themselves, but that’s what it seemed like to me,” Hirling said. “And I know when I ran for mayor (the first time), someone said to my husband, ‘Flowery Branch will never elect a female (as mayor)’ ... and here I am. There were some individuals who liked to stir up problems.”
As she went about her first term, the council that came on board with her got along with each other — and that helped in her mission to bring civility to the government.
“There was never any animosity or bitterness among them,” Hirling said. “All five acted like professional adults, and I think that helped.”
The council has suffered some friction the past two years, as it split into two camps — three residents with longtime ties to the city and two relative newcomers, Sterling on the Lake residents Craig Lutz and Chris Fetterman.
As a result, 3-2 votes were common, with Lutz and Fetterman often in the minority.
The other council members, Allen Bryans Sr., Pat Zalewski and Mary Jones, chose not to run for re-election in November. They were replaced by Mike Miller, Kris Yardley and Tara Richards, who were sworn in Wednesday with Hirling.
The new council members are relative newcomers to the city, with Miller and Richards also hailing from Sterling on the Lake, a 1,000-acre subdivision off Spout Springs Road.
At that ceremony, Hirling gave a brief speech, starting it by saying that she had set out four years ago “to bring stability and respectability” to the city government.
“I am proud to say we have achieved it,” said Hirling, who was re-elected without opposition.
During public comment time in the meeting that followed the ceremony, former Flowery Branch Councilman Ed Lezaj praised Hirling for “continuity the last four years ... (and) I hope she continues that.”
“You took over a dysfunctional City Council and, unfortunately, I happened to be a member of that,” he said.
Lezaj also pointed out the top-heavy Sterling makeup of the council, adding, “Just remember, you serve the entire city. ... It’s not this side of (Interstate) 985 versus that side.”
Hirling said during the interview that she believes calmness and order will prevail with the new council.
“It’s only going to get better,” she said. “I’m positive of that.”
As for the next four years, she wants Old Town Flowery Branch — a planned $15 million downtown development set to start this summer — to become a reality.
“I think the city needs to help Old Town to prove that it can be a stable and friendly city, so that we can entice builders, businesses to come into Old Town,” Hirling said.
The development, which has been in the works for several years, features a collection of shops hugging a yet-to-be-built street parallel to Main Street. Also included in the plans: a parking garage, townhomes and cafes.
“To me, right now, Old Town is the jump-start,” Hirling said. “If that doesn’t happen, I don’t see downtown becoming viable again.”