Santa Maria Sun / News
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 14, Issue 15
Longtime court executive officer Gary Blair will retire in July
BY AMY ASMAN
Gary Blair—the Santa Barbara County court executive officer whose varied career includes such highlights as unifying the county’s court systems and managing the infamous Michael Jackson trial—is retiring in July after 37 years. He is the longest serving court executive officer in California.
The Board of Supervisors recognized Blair for his work at its June 18 meeting. Blair talked to the Sun about his career in an interview prior to the meeting.
He started interning for the District Attorney’s Office as a UC Santa Barbara graduate student in 1976. Shortly into his nine-month internship, Blair was asked by newly elected DA Stanley Roden to help create—and run—a victim-witness assistance program.
“And I said, ‘yes, of course,’” Blair recalled, adding that the goal of the program was to make the court system more efficient for victims so they wouldn’t be revictimized.
As program director, Blair started an on-call phone system for witnesses so they wouldn’t have to wait around in court all day—something he said especially helped police officers testifying in court. He also oversaw an evidence recovery program that returned belongings to victims in a more timely fashion.
In 1979, the superior court judges appointed Blair court executive officer. In this position, Blair said he was responsible for “everything but what the judges do,” including managing the budget and court personnel, acting as the court spokesperson, overseeing facilities and technology, and more. He also served as the jury commissioner, forming jury pools and selecting grand juries.
When California voters passed a constitutional amendment in 1998 to unify the state’s superior, justice, and municipal courts, Blair was in charge of making sure those changes occurred in Santa Barbara County.
Blair said the move created more continuity in the court system because cases were assigned to a single judge after arraignment and that judge made the final ruling.
In 2004, Blair obtained special permission from the California Judicial Council to post all of the documents and media information related to the Michael Jackson trial on a court-operated website.
“I was really worried because I knew that case would attract a lot of attention,” Blair said. “There was the potential for the media to overrun the court system by demanding copies of all the documents related to the case.”
A state rule, however, prohibited the online distribution of documents from criminal cases. A divided judicial council ultimately allowed Blair to launch a yearlong online pilot program. That program was later approved indefinitely and used for high-profile criminal cases, like the Scott Petersen murder trial.
One of Blair’s last jobs as court executive officer was to present his department’s 2013-14 budget to the Board of Supervisors earlier this month. He warned the board that the fiscal outlook for the state’s courts isn’t good.
“We’ve been on a downward spiral for the last five years,” Blair later told the Sun. “The next two years are supposed to be the bleakest yet.”
He said the courts are being severely hindered by a Legislature-approved cap on reserve spending. Currently, courts are only allowed to keep up to 1 percent of their budgets in reserve.
“The Legislature is sending the wrong message. They’re saying, ‘don’t save any money for rainy-day reserves because we’ll take it from you,’” he said. “It doesn’t make any sense.”
He estimated the courts need at least 12 to 15 percent of their funding in reserve to sustain their programs. He said one of the things he’s most proud of in his career is that he was able to secure funding for new court facilities in Santa Barbara and Santa Maria.
When asked if he had any advice for his successor, Blair said, “Hold on to your wallet very tightly. You just have to be vigilant.”
According to court officials, Blair’s successor will be announced in the coming weeks.