Behind every elected official is an administrator and behind him is a deputy and behind him . . . Elected officials may make policy but the quality of government is often determined by little-known men and women who hold the administrative jobs. Fairfax County's top administrators include a county executive and three deputies. This is the third of a series about them and what they do. Today's article reports on Deputy County Executive James P. McDonald.
When James P. McDonald talks about Fairfax County, he compares it to a giant holding corporation. When he talks about his job as the county's chief budget officer, he compares himself to a corporate vice president.
"This isn't any Rexall Drug Store outfit," says McDonald known mostly as "Pat" around the county administration offices in the Massey Building on Chain Bridge Road. "This is Gulf and Western a real conglomerate operation."
McDonald, 35, is the money man in Fairfax County, which he also likes to call "the largest single corporation in Virginia, considering it operates on a half-billion-dollar budget." Under his wing are the offices of management and budget, assessments, general services, personnel and the department of finance, totaling more than 900 county staffers.
"I'm the one around here who lives on the basis of bond ratios," McDonald says. "My job is the same as an executive at AT&T or Gulf and Western - to manage affairs in the most economical way possible."
The county affairs McDonald worries about include fixing real estate and private property values, keeping the county treasury and accounts, making investments, preparing the annual budget, leasing, buying and selling county property, purchasing school and county equipment, maintaining county facilities and supervising the office of personnel.
Normally, McDonald's function is "to plan, organize staff, direct and control," as he puts it. Department heads under him take responsibility for many day-to-day decisions. The director of the department of finance, for instance, will decide where to invest available funds, but only after he has met with McDonald to review "how investments should be spread to follow the policy of the Board of Supervisors.
"Some $2 billion is processed each year in the county between buying and selling and investing," McDonald said. "If I had to get involved in every single decision that involves, I'd be asking for the salaries of my department heads as well as my own."
A native of West Virginia whose speech is laced with a New England accent, McDonald is one of three newly appointed deputy county executives who help shape Fairfax County policy through their daily decisions and dealings with the Board of Supervisors and the county executive.
All three deputies, appointed in November by County Executive Leonard L. Whorton, came up through the ranks of Fairfax County government. McDonald previously served as director of management analysis and systems design division and director of the office of management and budget.
Their names or photographs are rarely found in news accounts - public information spokesmen, the supervisors or the county executive more often serve as spokesmen for county goings-on.
They are not the officials most citizens would call to find out why road repairs in their neighborhoods are taking so long or why the trash wasn't picked up in time - although such questions sometimes bypass other county staff and come looking for answers in their offices.
Their functions, rather, fit somewhere in between.
They must both interpret Board of Supervisors' policies to see that they are carried out at the operational level and work up practical recommendations for action that the Board may choose to follow.
"McDonald's views on fiscal affairs have tremendous credibility with the Board," says Board Chairman John F. Herrity. "When a lot of other jurisdictions are playing fiscal games, it's essential to have somebody as credible as Pat to point out what is fiscally responsible."
McDonald's role can be defined by some examples. The director of personnel might change the grading of a clerk typist I to clerk typist II, but McDonald would have been the one to work out the reclassification of county jobs to include the upgrading. McDonald, in turn, would not decide to reclassify jobs unless the Board had alloted funds to provide higher salaries required by the upgradings, he explained.
McDonald doesn't always go through his employees to get things done. Occasionally he steps out of his director's role for various tasks. Last week, in his capacity of overseer of county general services, McDonald said he "conferred with an irate contractor about the poor quality of some machinery here in the Massey Building. I wanted to see if he would either insure better performance from the equipment or if he wanted to terminate his contract with the county," McDonald said.
"But professional management is the point," continued McDonald, who looks like a professional in his John Dean-like spectacles and neatly tailored suit. He appears cool, calm, collected and freshly pressed at any hour of the working day. "They key is output, and I'm responsible for what is or is not accomplished in the departmens under me.
"Each person manages the way he feels most comfortable," he added. "If some of my managers want their hands held and they do a good job because of it, I'll hold their hands. If some prefer a more independent stance, meeting with me only on a routine basis, that's fine, too. I have to be prepared to do both."
McDonald says professional management is essential for a county "of the wealth and magnitude of Fairfax."
"We're talking about a county where the median income is $23,000, the average price for a house is $65,000, where 35 per cent of the population is older than 25 with college degrees, where you've got more than 58 government agencies providing services to its own set of clientele," McDonald said. "Fairfax County is in good shape, but professional management has a lot to do with keeping it that way."
McDonald, who holds several degrees in economics and public administration from the University of Pennsylvania and George Washington University, credits the County Board with "foresight" for appointing professionals whose first ability is management."
The decision-making responsibility McDonald has earned in the county since he started as a budget analyst in 1967 allowed him to start "playing the float" with Fairfax finances. McDonald says this cash management method used formerly by corporations only is saving the county millions of dollars.
Playing the float means getting money into interest-bearing accounts as soon as possible and keeping it there as long as possible. Fairfax "plays the float" when it makes available only enough money to cover the 15 per cent of the county's total paychecks estimated to be cashed on pay-day. The remaining money then can stay in a higher interest account for a day or two longer, "earning a significant amount of money when you're talking about thousands of dollars deposited."
"McDonald tends to be perceived as a technocrat in the county," said Al Riutort, president of the Fairfax County Federation of Civic Associations. "But his financial judgment is well trusted, because he knows the budget inside out and backwards. And he holds on to his positions like a bulldog, trusting the information from his staff more that what comes from outside."
McDonald also headed up a top-to-bottom evaluation of Fairfax finances three years ago, which helped earn Fairfax County a triple-A bond rating. The rating, the highest possible given by Moody's, one of two principal companeis that rate municipal bond issues, helped reduce the county's interest rates on its October sales of 20-year bond issues to 4.95 per cent.
"There's a real sense of accomplishment you get working in local government I doubt you can find in the federal structure," McDonald said. "You can see concrete results from your efforts. The system is compact enough that you're not lost in the process."
What about private enterprise?Wouldn't that offer as much challenge and perhaps a higher salary than the $48,019 a year he earns now?
"Local government is my field of expertise," explained McDonald, who started his career as assistant city manager in College Park, Md., in the early sixties. He and his wife, Anne, have two children, Andrew 7, and Laura, 3.
"I think people sometimes are put off by this impressive stone tower (the Massey Building)," McDonald says. "And since much of my work involves working with other county staff and administrators, sometimes I feel hidden away in here. But actually I'm just a phone call away."
He pauses. Smiles.
"Even the vice president of Sears and Roebuck, the guy who used to be a salesman and meet people all day long, will grab the phone sometimes before his secretary picks it up, just to get some contact with people on the outside.
"Even if it's a complaint from somebody wanting to return a bum broom."