Before accepting the job as Dumfries town manager in April, Thomas Harris wanted to make sure he knew what he was stepping into. He went to a 7-Eleven.
"I hung out," Harris said. "I got a chance to talk to the people coming in and out."
The result: "Some reflections on the instability and turmoil" in the town, he said.
During the past year, 10 Dumfries town employees have resigned, including almost half of the 10-officer police department, the chief of police and the first town manager, James Crouch, who clashed with a split Town Council over how much authority he should have in the hiring and firing of personnel.
Harris, 39, the former town manager of Superior, Ariz., said he accepted the Dumfries job with the intention of encouraging some changes to help establish a more professional atmosphere at Town Hall and ease the transition for a new mayor and council.
So far, Harris, whose annual salary is $44,100, has asked the Criminal Justice Department to review the standard operating procedures of the town's police department; has begun to overhaul the town's personnel manual; and for the first time, has started submitting written, rather than verbal, staff reports to the council at its regular meetings.
On his third day on the job, Harris, a native of Henrico County, Va., went to Richmond to introduce himself to officials at several state agencies. "I don't have any problem asking for assistance," he said. According to Harris, the town currently is taking advantage of regional and state resources, such as state grants for recreational facilities.
Although the newly seated council, which includes two first-term members, has so far voiced unanimous support for Harris, reviews from town employees have been mixed.
"I think he's doing an excellent job . . . . He's actually holding us accountable for our actions," said a police officer who asked not to be identified. "If you do a job, fine. If you don't, don't point the finger."
Some police officers, however, are disgruntled about Harris's tentative proposal to change their schedules from four-day 10-hour shifts to regular five-day eight-hour shifts. Harris said the revised scheduling is only one of several changes that may be proposed after the state's review of the department.
"There are a whole slew of potential changes," Harris said. The review, he said, will help the police department decide what it needs to do to meet town needs.
A former director of parks and recreation in Caroline County, Va., Harris takes over the administrative leadership of Dumfries after spending three years working his way up through the ranks in Superior -- from a recreation consultant to his first job as a town manager. After 18 months, he was fired by a newly seated council there last September.
Although several Superior town officials said Harris's termination was politically motivated, Superior Mayor Ruben Fernandez said Harris wanted to be "top dog" and, consequently, did not work cooperatively with the new council. Another town official said Harris lacked administrative experience as town manager.
"Tom has a mind of his own. He's kind of an aggressive sort of fellow . . . . But he backed up his talking pretty well," said former Superior mayor Manuel Ruiz, who worked with Harris for several years. "Tom proved he had the skills for being a good manager."
Said Harris: "What transpired in Superior was the changing of the guards."
Most Dumfries Town Council members said they are confident of Harris's ability to do the job. He has had 17 years of public administration experience, primarily in parks and recreation.
"He's positive and informative -- a futuristic individual, who is looking at the big picture in Northern Virginia," said third-term council member Christopher K. Brown.
Brown said Harris seems prepared to tackle issues such as Dumfries' assumption of responsibility for its secondary roads by 1992; the implementation of the state Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act; and the possible impact of a new beltway that might cross the Potomac River just north of Dumfries.
Last week the council accepted Harris's recommendation that the town apply for membership in the Northern Virginia Planning District Commission, a regional agency that advises on how to deal with issues such as transportation and the environment.
Newly elected Mayor Samuel W. Bauckman, a former Town Council member, said he expects to work closely with Harris.
"I've got a lot of information at my disposal that may not be available to him at Town Hall," Bauckman said, adding, "I don't expect to interfere with the administration, but I do expect to make myself available . . . . I reckon both of us have to be careful we don't get in each other's way."
Harris is preparing for a picnic for the 10-member police department, which, in addition to the loss of officers over the last year, is under investigation by state police for the possible mishandling of evidence more than a year ago.
Chief of Police Conrad G. LaBossiere, who was hired last fall, said he is concerned about Harris's decision to request a state review of the department. "Personally, I think it makes the department look like we can't do the job. But he's the boss, so I signed off on it," LaBossiere said.
Saying that Dumfries could conduct its own review, Harris said his request doesn't suggest any inadequacy in the department, but is a way of getting the job done "efficiently and effectively."
In a June 1 memo to all town employees, Harris said changes at Town Hall would not threaten job security and urged employees to focus on quality work, rather than the political rumor mill.
"Let me assure you that you are valued members of this staff and shall be accorded that respect until 'you' prove otherwise," Harris said in the memo. " 'Rumor is a pipe blown by surmises, jealousies, conjectures. . . . ' (Shakespeare)"