Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

Santa Fe’s new city manager brings ‘enthusiasm’ to role | Local News

Councilwoman Signe Lindell says Santa Fe has had 26 city managers since 1972. The 27th, newly appointed John Blair, completed his first full week of work on Friday and got an unmistakable taste of what awaits him.

“It’s a very tiring job, it really is,” Blair said in an interview. “I worked all weekend, most of the time through the night. But I’ve had similar jobs before.”

The next few weeks are unlikely to get any easier, if only because Blair, as the city’s chief administrator, will have a lot going through his head every day. But Blair, who took on the role of city manager on January 12, is unfazed by his prospects – partly because he grew up here and says he knows a lot about the city.

“I don’t think there could be a better opportunity to help my hometown,” Blair said. “I truly see the mission that lies ahead of me today and the length of my ministry as how we can help hold on to the things we love about Santa Fe while helping make it a 21st century city. century.”

Blair, 47, succeeds Jarel LaPan Hill, who announced her intention to step down from the position in December. Blair was appointed by Mayor Alan Webber and was easily confirmed by the City Council by an 8-1 vote. He is paid $172,500 per year and agrees to accept the position without a contract as a part-time employee.

Blair said he has never had a contract in his career and doesn’t need one as city manager.

Blair’s first week in office is best described as a sprint of between 30-minute and one-hour briefings with city officials.

But there was more: meetings and greetings with community groups, more city officials and city council members. The goal: to stay informed not only about what’s happening, but also about things that didn’t work.

“The worst thing you can tell me is, ‘That’s the way we’ve always done it,'” said Blair, who, prior to his appointment, had reached out to every borough manager and city council to weigh priorities and discuss ways to strengthen the processes of city ​​administration.

There’s work to be done: Santa Fe is searching for a new police chief, currently facing a COVID-19 outbreak, and struggling to heal the tensions created by the cutting down of the Plaza obelisk. Blair also has to deal with how the city will handle American Rescue Plan Act funds and learn about key community groups like the Caballeros de Vargas and others.

Addressing the city’s near-chronic string of late audits and deficiencies in the city’s finance department are also early priorities, Blair said.

“It’s been a lot of work, but it’s very exciting work,” Blair said. “There is no such thing as lame duck time.”

Lindell, who said she knew Blair prior to his appointment from her time at the Victory Fund, a national organization that advocates for elected LGBTQ officials, said the new city manager took on the role without hesitation.

“He has this sense of really doable energy,” she said. “If there’s such a thing as an over-communicator, he might lean towards that category.”

Blair, who lives in Santa Fe with his husband Billy Black and their dog CJ Cregg – named after the White House press secretary from TV drama The West Wing, his favorite show – said communication is vital within the city government and beyond.

“If everyone knows, we’re stronger,” Blair said. “I’m very team-oriented. I’m here to work with about 1,200 people and we’re all a team working hard to get things done for the city of Santa Fe.”

Councilman Chris Rivera, the city council’s longest-serving member, acknowledged that it was far too early to know what the future held for Blair, but Lindell noted his enthusiasm will serve him well.

“He has high energy. … I think it’s probably good for the city to have someone with his energy level,” Rivera said. “He’s going to need it to move forward.”

Blair was born in Albuquerque but spent most of his youth in Santa Fe in a household that respected and admired government and public service.

His father, William Blair, worked in various positions within the State Department of Education for 31 years while his mother, Evelyn Blair, worked in banking before working for the New Mexico Commission for the Blind for 20 years.

Blair recalls leafing through textbooks in the basement of the Public Education Department building as a young man and playing the classroom-popular Oregon Trail on old work computers.

“I was drawn to being part of government and working with people from a very, very early age,” Blair said. “I don’t know if there was a triggering moment, but I knew in high school that I wanted to work helping people.”

Blair, a product of Santa Fe Public Schools, said he was influenced by teacher Jane Bates, who taught a contemporary history class at Santa Fe High during the 1992 presidential election.

That helped spark an interest in government, one that caught fire when Blair was one of 100 students from across the county who took a trip to Washington, DC, through the US Senate’s Leadership Program Hearst Foundation, which helped students learn about government work.

There he met Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, US Army General (and later Secretary of State) Colin Powell, and then-US Senator Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico.

“It’s been such a powerful journey for me,” he said.

After high school, Blair attended the University of Kansas — he’s still a “militant” Jayhawks fan — where he majored in communications and politics. He later earned a law degree from the University of New Mexico, but acknowledges that it was a way to learn how to make policy and legislation.

He worked as a junior clerk in Bingaman’s office for a year, mainly opening and answering mail and working on a number of constituent matters. During that time, he said, he learned how powerful people can think about government — especially when it doesn’t address voters’ concerns.

“There’s a public trust that needs to be held,” Blair said. “You do that by keeping your word and calling people back.”

Since then, Blair has spent his life in government, working at both the state and federal levels. He served as Legislative Director and Communications Director for then-Rep. Martin Heinrich from 2009-13; Chief of Staff to Congressman Dan Kildee of Michigan in 2013 and Director of Intergovernmental and Foreign Affairs at the US Department of the Interior from 2014 to 2016.

From 2016 to 2019, Blair served as Deputy Secretary of State and Chief of Staff under Maggie Toulouse Oliver. He ran unsuccessfully for the 2020 Democratic nomination in the 3rd congressional district before ending up with the state’s Regulation and Licensing Division.

During his time at Regulation and Licensing, Blair helped develop the state’s recreational cannabis rules and regulations while working to improve the agency’s internal processes. He said he left to explore new opportunities and ultimately chose to take the city manager’s position when it was offered by Webber.

The mayor said that while Blair’s professional background and degrees are not in local government, his diverse experience elsewhere lends itself to the city manager’s job.

“Most people say, ‘What are his qualifications for the job?’ ‘ said Weber. “I’ll start with what kind of person the city manager will be and what qualities of character that person brings to the job every day. I think John has outstanding personal qualities and outstanding qualities as an individual.”

Blair’s predecessor, LaPan Hill, said Blair’s temper will help him a lot. But she also noted that he has to balance several issues at once, including finding a balance between responding to crises, strategic planning and moving forward with important matters.

“Even if you all work,” she said, “there’s only a finite number of hours in the day.”

LaPan Hill’s predecessor, former city manager Erik Litzenberg, agreed, calling the role “complex” and one that relies on a strong team of directors and department heads.

Blair, who said he intends to reach out to as many former city managers as possible in the coming days and weeks, said he was well aware of the challenges. But he dives his head first.

“We’re all in this together,” he said. “When the bad things happen, we need to come together to support and be there for one another. These jobs are long hours. It’s hard work and the idea that there is a working family is a real thing. We have to support each other.”

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