Sheila Gonzalez is neither a lawyer nor a judge. But she is one of the most powerful people in the Ventura County Courthouse.
In the three years since she was hired as Municipal Court clerk, Gonzalez has taken on virtually every top management job there.
Now at age 46, and without a college degree, she is executive officer, clerk and jury commissioner of Ventura County’s Superior and Municipal courts.
By all accounts, Gonzalez’s hard work and ability as an administrator earned her all those jobs and her $91,936 annual income--about $7,000 more than a Superior Court judge makes.
And her colleagues say that Gonzalez gets nearly everything she wants in the way of backing and funding for new personnel and labor-saving projects in the Courthouse--through sheer persuasiveness.
She’s even adept at getting judges to carry her suitcases when she travels to court conferences around the state.
Municipal Court Judge John J. Hunter said Gonzalez often persuades presiding judges and national court association dignitaries to haul her “extraordinary amount of luggage” through hotels and airports.
“We all are alerted to the large blue case with the little whales on it, because it’s heavy and we all know what’s in it--about 10 changes of clothes,” Hunter said.
Sixteen years ago, when Gonzalez was a filing clerk in the Glendale Municipal Court, Judge Neil A. Lake stopped at her desk and foretold her future.
“He said, ‘You’ll be running this court some day.’ I said, ‘Uh, I don’t think so.’ He said, ‘No, you mark my words, you’ll be running this court some day,’ ” Gonzalez said. “I’m sorry he wasn’t alive to see his prophecy come true.”
In 1980 she became administrator in Glendale, and in 1986, she came to Ventura.
Gonzalez’s colleagues say it is her persuasiveness that has transformed the Courthouse, streamlining it with projects such as a fully computerized case-filing system and a video network that lets judges in their courtrooms arraign defendants in jail by closed-circuit TV.
“People have a very difficult time telling her no,” said Chris Crawford, who worked with Gonzalez when she was administrator of the Glendale Municipal Court from 1980 to 1986. “It’s not because she’s overly persistent, it’s not because she’s devious or subversive, it’s because she’s so direct, so up front, so disarming.
“By the time you finish going through one of these issues with Sheila, you’re convinced her suggested way is the absolute right way to do it.”
And by all accounts her staff is more efficient and happier than before she arrived.
“I think our biggest problem was morale. Morale was pretty low,” said Hunter, who helped choose Gonzalez from among 100 candidates in a nationwide search for a new clerk in 1986.
“The first thing she did when she came in was talk to everybody individually--even the mail clerk. She asked what their needs were, how they felt about things.”
When she was named as clerk of Superior Court in November, Gonzalez found that office was “chronically understaffed” and closing at 3 p.m. every day just to catch up with the day’s filings, said Superior Court Judge Joe D. Hadden.
Her predecessors recommended hiring 12 to 15 new employees, but Gonzalez restructured the office and “immediately kept it open till 5 each evening, and she’s been doing the job with no additional people,” Hadden said.
County Chief Administrative Officer Richard Wittenberg called Gonzalez “an extremely competent, aggressive, hands-on administrator” who selects good managers and infects them with her enthusiasm.
“But I’ve seen her with a sharp tongue too,” Wittenberg said. “She can argue and go to the mat with the best of them.”
Her colleagues speak of her as if they were disciples.
One former co-worker called Gonzalez “the quintessential court administrator.”
“Sheila is my mentor,” Crawford said. “She’ll deal straight with you and she’ll also praise you when you’re doing the right things. It sounds deceptively simple, but an awful lot of people don’t do that.”
Karla Olson, who succeeded Gonzalez as Glendale’s court administrator, said she once told her former boss, “if you were in private industry, you’d be a millionaire.”
Gonzalez says she never even dreamed of being a court official.
In 1968, after staying at home with her daughter for a few years, “I decided to go back to work because I was bored,” she said.
She passed the civil service exam and got a job filing parking tickets in the Glendale Municipal Court.
In 1974, Gonzalez was promoted to the post of assistant court administrator, and by 1980 she was the administrator.
Then in 1986, she was chosen from more than 100 candidates in a nationwide search to replace the executive officer of Ventura Municipal Court, who was retiring.
One year ago, she replaced the Superior Court executive officer when he retired, and in November, she took over as court clerk when that job merged with the executive officer’s job.
Hunter said Gonzalez shows no signs of feeling the pressure.
“People call her and say, ‘Hey, will you do a project with us?’ ‘Sure,’ she says. That’s what makes her go. She operates under pressure. No pressure, no work. I don’t think Sheila could function if she didn’t have at least 10 balls in the air at all times,” he said.
Gonzalez keeps one eye on the projects she juggles and the other on the ground where she stands--California’s increasingly busy courts.
Gonzalez said she believes that “people are looking to the courts to solve a lot of the social ills that previously were solved through family, religious organizations and services that have been cut through budget restraints.”
And so the courts must “become more efficient through technology.”
Two new Gonzalez projects that could save the courts time and money are hand-held computers for police to use to give out automated traffic tickets and a file-by-fax system for court documents.
She seems to be enjoying herself.
“We’re just kind of bipping along and doing fun things,” she said with a breezy smile that belies the responsibilities of her many jobs.
“This is like going to court administrator’s heaven,” she said. “I have got the best group of judges--and I’m not just saying that, because I don’t need to make points here. They let me do my job, they’re progressively open-minded and they accept new ideas.”
Gonzalez calls herself “the only person in the county who has 27 elected officials as her boss. I’m an at-will employee. If I don’t do my job, I should be asked to leave, and I don’t feel anxious that I will.”