When the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors began scouting for a new county executive last summer, they wanted someone who could tighten up county administration, efficiently manage county funds and keep a low profile.

To their apparent delight, Leonard L. Whorton, after seven months as county executive, is turning out to be exactly the man they had in mind for the $49,000 position.

"He's low-key, but efficient and effective," said Board of Supervisors Chairman Jack F. Herrity. "He's a strong individual, but no grandstander. The board wanted a strong administrator and that's what they got."

What they got is a quietly confident fellow whose mild-mannered demeanor calls up images of Clark Kent, and whose 15-year career has been devoted to public administration - a field he chose as a sophomore at Fresno (Calif.) State College in 1961.

Now, at age 39, after three years as assistant city manager in Richmond, Whorton holds his first No. 1 management position.

But the fact that he is the county's top administrative officer does not give. Whorton free license to run Fairfax.

"I serve at the pleasure of the board of supervisors. Any time they feel I'm not doing the job they want, I can be dismissed," Whorton said.

"The staff and I are very responsive to the board. That doesn't mean I tell the board only what it wants to hear," Whorton continued. "What I present is my well-documented opinion, along with alternatives the board may prefer to follow."

Whorton fits the part of professional administrator. He dresses conservatively in a dark pin-stripe suit. He pauses thoughtfully before most statements. He has an educational background in government, holding a masters degree in administration from the Whorton School of Finance and Commerce of the University of Pennsylvania. His past positions have included serving as an administrative intern in Fresno, Calif., an assistant to the city manager in Salem, Ore., and as a budget director in Richmond.

A county executive's administrative leeway depends on the board of supervisors, according to Bob Wilson, former Fairfax executive who resigned in January, 1976, to become administrative assistant to Prince George's executive Winfield Kelly. In Prince George's county executives are elected. The legal limits on a non-elected county executive, as in Fairfax, are spelled out in Virginia state law, but de facto limits of power are set by the board, Wilson said.

Whorton said his administrative powers are governed by the kinds of issues he deals with daily. If the issue is extremely sensitive, such as labor relations. Whorton would "keep the board well informed" and have a clear idea of what the board wants before taking any steps.

"In routine matters I have broad administrative discretion," Whorton added. "I can use my own discretion in getting county business done, like calling for road repairs, changing trash collection routes or reassigning personnel. But I wouldn't feel comfortable issuing salary raise without feed-back first from the board."

On any given day, he confers by phone several times with as many as four different supervisors.

"I work for the board. That means keeping them well informed and taking the opportunity to share information."

His only major action thus far as county executive was one the board fully supported and hailed as an efficient move. Whorton appointed three deputy executives in November to cover three main areas of county affairs - operations, budget and finance, and planning and development. Previous executives have worked with only one deputy or several department heads. One of the deputies is a well-known financial whiz, another is a planning specialist and a third has worked on every level of county government for more than 15 years.

"As a newcomer, seeking the amount of paperwork crossing my desk, I perceived I would have trouble fully grasping all the fine details of all the issues," Whorton explained. "How can any one man, regardless of how men he is to an area, intelligently deal with thousands of individual items. My deputies are specialists in their fields, independently minded directors who can give me good solid feedback to make decisions."

He added that if his directives to his deputies seemed at cross-purposes, he would expect them to iron out the contradictions before reporting back to him.

"What I want in my office are solutions," Whorton stated.

When Whorton talks about his role as executive and his objectives for the county, it seems apparent that his ideas match those of the board.

In the short run, Whorton says, he aims to exercise "prudent financial management" to keep Fairfax "in the healthy financial shape it's already in." Fairfax is so fiscally healthy, according to Whorton, that he foresees no tax increases in the near future.

Cost effective measures he would take to keep Fairfax in sound financial shape would include the more efficient use of staff in agencies such as police, fire, health services and public works.

"Even limited growth like 15,000 to 18,000 a year will demand additional public facilities, but you should evaluate what you have before expanding," Whorton says.

Herrity calls Whorton's financial outlook "realistic."

"He's not one to try every new wacko program that comes down the pike. His main concern is delivering services to Fairfax citizens as economically as possible."

Whorton also plans to direct more time to "in-depth planning for growth" which he says the county can afford at the present growth rate of 3.5 per cent a year. He added that the county now has "intelligent mechanisms" for dealing with growth, like a county remapping program, a five-year comprehensive improvement plan and an annual review plan. These mechanisms, he said, will be used to encourage "controlled growth."

"We've reached a point of stabilization of growth in the county - a point where we can take more time to plan and not make the mistakes made in previous years," Whorton explained. "Growth in the '60s was what I would call unmanageable. Now we can take advantage of this more comfortable pace to assure that our major facilities can accommodate growth."

Since Whorton came to Fairfax in the middle of the current 1977-78 budget cycle, his power to carry through what he advocates has been limited.

"The budget is the major planning tool where cost effective measures would have to come," the new executive said. "And that is where I plan to effect changes in the future."

The result of Whorton's short term objectives will, in the long run, he hopes, give Fairfax "communities that age well, that make Fairfax a place people will find attractive in 50 or 60 years."

"I would like to see that Fairfax will be a county with adequate green space, curbs and access roads, that it will have a good mix of commercial and industrial growth for a strong tax base, but that this growth will not encroach on its neighborhoods. We have the resources to do this, this is the challenge."

Between his short time in office and his low-key administrative style, Whorton is still somewhat of an unknown in Fairfax County. But several leaders of Fairfax civic and special interest groups indicate they like what they have seen so far of the new executive. They find him responsible, accessible and willing to hear them out.

"What he says sounds good, what he does . . . well, we still have to wait and see," says Al Riutort, president of the Fairfax Federation of Civic Assoications. "He seems as though he's willing to get involved with the citizens and that he intends to make county management less of a one-man show than in the past."

Wanda Byrd, chairman of the Fairfax Employee Advisory Council describes Whorton as "extremely cooperative" and says "communications were never better in the county." David Miller, president of the Northern Virginia Builders Association, says Whorton is willing to discuss problems in a frank and open manner."

Whorton, who lives in the Truro sub-division with his wife, Sharon, and three children, John, 11, David, 10 and Janet, 5, sees a five-to-seven-year stint ahead of him as county executive.

"That's the amount of time it takes to try out most of your ideas and objectives," he explained. "Somewhere in that time frame, a jurisdiction needs fresh leadership and new directions. I think I could serve very comfortably as Fairfax executive until that time is up."