On any given day, J. Hamilton Lambert might decide on the details of a new public building in Fairfax County, transfer firemen or policemen from one station to another, order county employees to monitor storm water drainage or make last-minute changes in a report on emergency services in the county.
Often, he is called in the middle of the night to handle emergencies, such as deploying special work crews to handle possible flooding from approaching storms. He had developed legislative proposals for the county, advised the Board of Supervisors on litigation and investigated new equipment that the county seeks to purchase.
Lambert's span of responsibility and authority is a broad one, despite the fact that he is little seen or known beyond the walls of the Massey building on Chain Bridge Road.
The blond, bullish-looking man who was acting county executive for Fairfax County for seven months last year, heads county operations as one of three deputy executives under recently-named County Executive Leonard L. Whorton.
Operations covers a wide area of services.It puts some 3,000 county workers under his supervison. Lambert oversees the police department, the public works department, the health department, fire and rescue services, the department of recreation and community services, the department of extension and continuing education, the department of manpower services, the department of consumer affairs and the department of animal control.
Lambert says department heads under him have "tremendous flexibility," but he is the man responsible for making sure police and firemen are doing their jobs, that tennis courts are in good shape, that trash is picked up in time and that water flows into homes, among hundreds of other "nuts and bolts" duties that cause him to keep a "to do" list in front of him at all times.
"You might call me the generalist among the deputies," says Lambert, sometimes referred to as "workhorse" Lambert by his colleagues. "Pat McDonald and Sam Finz are the specialists, the experts. They are analytically oriented. I'm production oriented."
McDonald heads up management and budget for the county and Finz supervises planning and development. The Fairfax Board of Supervisors appointed all three deputies in November at Whorton's suggestion that the arrangement would help him better administrate the county.
Whorton calls Lambert the "can-do" man on the Fairfax administrative staff.
"He's the man who knows this county from top to bottom," Whorton said, "because he's worked on every level of Fairfax operations, from supervising trash pickup to supervising the whole county."
Lambert has been working for Fairfax County since he was 18 when he joined the county staff as a mapmaker in 1959. Now 36 years old, his career has been shaped by Fairfax County and puts him in a position where he can shape the county.
In his new post, which calls for a business suit rather than coveralls, Lambert still approaches work with his sleeves rolled up. By the end of a working day, his suit coat is likely to be tossed aside, his tie well-loosened and his ashtray piled high with half-smoked cigarettes.
Lambert has been an engineering and planning aide, a planning technician, management analyst and assistant director of public works, among others.
"I'd like to think my long-term role in Fairfax government would give my decision impact on both the internal and external workings of the county," Lambert says."I mean, I think I am able to see if a Board decision will really work at the operational level. If you're going to pass an ordinance that no kid under 12 can ride his bike later than 8 p.m., you've got to make sure you have enough police to enforce it."
Despite his broad discretionary powers on the routine aspects of "making the county work, he well understands the limites of his authority.
"For any project that would exceed budget allotments, I would most certainly consult the Board and Whorton," Lambert said.
In addition to heading a variety of services that are essential to Fairfax County citizens, Lambert also serves as acting county executive whenever Whorton is out of the county. The Board of Supervisors offered Lambert the county executive post last year while he was acting executive from January through August, but his response was a very quick "no thank you."
"I feel the same way now as I did then," said Lambert, who came to Fairfax under the first county executive, Carlton C. Massey, whose deferential manner to the Board has been compared to Lambert's. "That job would not have been in my best interests nor in the best interest of the county."
He declined to further discuss why he turned down the county executive post, citing personal reasons.
When Lambert was being asked to become permanent county executive, one Supervisor reportedly was preparing to vote against him, saying "he's stayed around long enough to survive. It's the Peter Principle."
Lambert says his new job offers a great deal of decision making "at a time when there is time to make decisions. We're got playing catch-up ball like we were in the sixties, when development was happening so fast we couldn't analyze or plan a lot for the growth," Lambert explained. "Now we can take time to plan, to study the issues and to gather input from a lot of different plan, to study the issues and to gather input from a lot of different sources.
"But believe me," he continued, "any decision I make is done full well knowing what the position of the Board is on the issue."
In a day and age when college degrees are the mark of the professional, Lambert is an anomoly in Fairfax government. He is the glaring exception that says smarts and sweat can build a professional as well as B.S., M.A. or Ph.D. tagging on a name.
"He's a self-made man," says Board of Supervisors Chairman John F. Herrity. "And one of the smartest men I know. He can absorb a complicated report like eating a piece of pie and apply the information with a tower of common sense and practicality."
Resumes for Whorton, Finz and McDonald list various university degrees. Lambert's shows a diploma from Loundoun County High School and certificates from courses in planning administration and leadership and management. Lambert still lives in Loudoun County with his wife Cathryn.
"I'd like to return to school sometime - I'd like to do a lot of things," Lambert says, adding he's considered studying business, law and medicine. "But right now I'm too busy to give it a lot of thought.
Al Riutort, president of the Fairfax County Federation of Civic Associations, credits Lambert with "a lot of political savvy."
"He's a guy who can handle all different groups in the county while remaining candid and forthright," Riutort said. "He's an excellent choice for the job he holds in the county, because he's responsible and knowledgeable."
Lambert, however, claims he's "not a political animal."
"There is no political flavor to the work I do," he continued. "I've worked under four different county executives and four different Boards of Supervisors. That certainly represent playing down the political role."
After surviving the turnovers in county administration, Lambert concludes it's the "concrete" aspects of his work that have kept him in Fairfax County "in spite of opportunities to work elsewhere."
"Several years ago I was investigating possibilities of building a new adult detention center for adults," Lambert recalled. "I look out my office window now and I can see one going up. There's something to be said for the kind of process, when you can see your efforts take shape in reality."