Rose Boyd wanted to slip away from her fishbowl office in Alexandria's City Hall recently and have a quiet, nonbusiness lunch. Then the city's Small Town Syndrome struck.
Just as Assistant City Manager Boyd settled into a booth at Portner's in Old Town, she spotted the director of the city's historical office and, quickly looking the other way, saw a third official walking toward her.
"You couldn't be discreet in this town if you wanted to," Boyd said. "Invariably, somebody finds you. And it's usually the person who says, 'You didn't return my call. I'm glad I found you.' "
Alexandria, a city of 107,000 supporting one public high school and five local newspapers, seems to many to possess the flavor and familiarity of a small midwestern town -- a good thing for the most part, city officials say.
"The chances are when you walk down King Street you'll see the mayor or the city manager or some official . . . . More business is done there than at a City Council meeting," said Commonwealth's Attorney John E. Kloch.
"Monday through Friday, I can walk from the Courthouse to City Hall and know 20 percent of the people," Kloch said.
A community of that nature smack in the middle of 3.4 million Greater Washingtonians brings its residents obvious advantages: a sense of belonging, involvement, knowing the inside news. But several officials find being Small Town U.S.A. sometimes feels incestuous and makes conducting business at arm's length impossible.
"How can you send a terse letter to the city manager if you know you'll see him or her at the lunch at the City Hall fountain?" Kloch asked. The prosecutor said the seven City Council members have great difficulty voting on almost any issue without fear of violating the state's conflict-of-interest law because Alexandrians are wired to each other in so many different ways.
"The difference between here and Fairfax is that you have relationships here on so many different levels," said Susan Dawson, aide to Mayor James P. Moran Jr.
One of Dawson's closest friends, Mary Reese, who assisted former Mayor Charles E. Beatley until Moran defeated him, turned over her desk to Dawson July 1. Asked if the campaign strained their friendship, Dawson simply said, "We're talking now."
Because the city is so compact (16 square miles), city staff and officials often not only share office space, but see each other after work across the back yard fence.
At a memorable neighborhood Christmas party last December, one North View Terrace resident invited the whole street, which included a dozen city activists and officials, two of whom were feuding at the time -- then-City Manager Douglas Harman and then-City Council member Donald C. Casey.
As bystanders noted when Harman and Casey followed one another into the party, to understand Alexandria's intimacy is to understand its politics.
Insiders nodded knowingly earlier this month when the City Council adopted informal regulations forbidding gossiping among city officials and staff, even though others outside Alexandria said they believed it was a joke.
"If we ever adopted a resolution like that, I'd know I was on my way out," said John F. Herrity, chairman of the Fairfax Board of Supervisors.
Public Safety spokeswoman Lucy Crockett, who diagnosed what she called The Lunch Hour Syndrome a few years ago, said she gives fair warning to all new police officers about what the city's intimate size means for them.
"They are never off duty," she said. No matter if it's lunch time or "You have relationships on so many different levels." -- Susan Dawson dinner time, a resident will want to report a neighbor failing to post a visible address outside his house or a city official will ask what's really going on in the police department.
"It's an urban village," said Acting City Manager Vola Lawson. "While it retains the charm of a small town it has the life and variety of a sophisticated, eclectic population."
"It makes politics more fun," said Dawson, the mayoral aide, because people feel the candidates are part family. "Even if they don't know them directly, they can find out all about them." Between children, spouses, and neighbors, Dawson said, "There's a lot going on in the back rooms."