Performing public service was just one of the tenets Joni Gray’s parents instilled in her, along with not putting her elbows on the table plus saying please and thank you.
Gray’s public service began early, running for office in junior high school, teaching, being elected to a Santa Maria Joint Union High School District board and eventually serving as a Santa Barbara County supervisor.
“You just learned that was part of your responsibility as a person,” she said.
Gray’s public service has earned her the Robert F. Grogan Award for Public Service from the Santa Maria Valley Chamber of Commerce and Visitor & Convention Bureau. The award is named for the former Santa Maria city manager.
Gray and her fellow honorees — Bob Hatch, recipient of the Citizen of the Year Award, and Community Bank of Santa Maria, which will receive the Business of the Year Award — will be recognized Wednesday night at the chamber’s annual awards and installation banquet at the Santa Maria Elks Lodge. The event is sold out.
When she learned of her recognition, Gray said she cried.
“I was shocked that I was picked,” she said. “I thought I was out of this. I thought I was fired. I’m really honored. I am just thrilled beyond what you’ll ever know.
“You never say one is better than the other, but this one, it just felt really really good,” she added.
The Robert F. Grogan Public Service Award began in 1990, according to Hatch, who retired in June as the chamber’s president and CEO. The lifetime award typically is given to someone who no longer holds a public service job.
Most of all, the requirement is that recipients must have dedicated their lives to public service.
“I think Joni Gray is the epitome of that,” Hatch said.
Gray began her own service at a young age, being elected junior high president and active in Junior Statesman. She studied political science in college.
“I don’t think I thought about going into politics,” she said. “I just liked it. I liked to debate. I like structuring of the argument.
“I like working with people and getting people to come together in a consensus. That’s what makes government work is everyone working together, putting their ideas on the table and then making that into a workable model. I always liked that.”
In 2012, Gray lost her bid for re-election as the Fourth District supervisor when Peter Adam defeated her in a runoff. Since then, she has focused on her family law and estate planning practice.
“I’m the kind of lawyer who really wants to help people,” she said, adding she enjoys helping people maneuver the complicated legal process.
After graduating from Santa Maria High School, Gray attended Fresno State University and Cal Poly, earning a bachelor’s degree in social science and master’s degree in education with an emphasis on counseling.
A former teacher at Santa Maria High and Allan Hancock College, Gray spent 10 years on the Santa Maria Joint Union High School District school board, acted as County Schools Superintendent Bill Cirone’s administrative assistant, worked for then-county Supervisor Harrell Fletcher and unsuccessfully ran for Assembly, losing in the June 1994 Republican primary to eventual winner Tom Bordonaro.
She spent two years on the Santa Barbara County Planning Commission before another door opened. In 1998, Gov. Pete Wilson picked Gray to fill the 4th District supervisor vacancy created when the incumbent Tim Staffel was appointed judge.
“Even though I’d worked for Supervisor Fletcher, the thing that surprised me the most was it truly is a full-time job,” Gray recalled. “I did not realize that when I started even though I’d been there. There’s lots and lots of reading and lots of being out in the public. At least three nights a week there’s some kind of a community event that in order to do your job, you need to be there because that’s where people communicate with you and that gives you a feel for the community. I think that was the biggest surprise about that job.”
Since leaving the Board of Supervisors, there’s a lot she misses — and a lot she doesn’t.
“I miss having a huge project, working with people and getting it done. I do not miss the every Tuesday meetings — and especially public comment,” she said with a laugh.
“I really miss the professionalism of the county staff,” she said, citing several departments. “I do miss their creativity and intellect. They’re really smart people.”
“I also miss the ability to work statewide and to get things to come to Santa Barbara County.”
Gray remains proud of the projects she was involved in while serving on the board, including the extension of Union Valley Parkway, creation of Orcutt trails, renovation of the Lompoc Veterans Memorial Building, battle to prevent the Air Force from banning the public from Surf Beach, relocation of the branch library in Orcutt and more.
Gray is a rare attorney who didn’t attend law school, choosing instead to study and pass the California Bar Exam to get her license.
She is married to George Wittenburg and has a daughter, Samantha.
Gray’s community involvement continues. She is the president of the North Santa Barbara County Athletic Roundtable and is on the board of the Old Town Orcutt Revitalization Association, working to build a parking lot she had pledged as a supervisor would get created.
Her second-story law office in Union Plaza in Old Town Orcutt is about a block from where her parents lived when she was born 72 years ago.
“I am right exactly where I belong,” she said. “I’m in this Orcutt that is just full of energy. ... I’m in this building that’s just beautiful. It’s so rewarding to be back and to be part of the community.”