Nine years after he left his post as Fairfax county executive, J. Hamilton Lambert is once again running a local government. From his office in the Leesburg town hall, he is interviewing candidates for top municipal jobs, reorganizing departments and arranging to buy property for a town park.
But Lambert has no job title to go with all these duties. Although he is making most of the key government decisions in Leesburg, he is technically just a consultant to the Town Council. He had no role in town affairs until last fall, and his stewardship will likely be over at year's end.
It's a rent-a-leader arrangement that might seem odd, council members concede. But with its ranks of senior municipal officials thinned by scandal and resignation, Leesburg desperately needed someone at the helm to "get us through all the mess," said Mayor James E. Clem. And Lambert, a Leesburg native who was in charge in Fairfax during its growth spurt in the 1980s, was perfectly suited to that task, Clem said.
"We had a lot of things I wanted to get done, and I knew it was better to have someone like him to help us get through them," said Clem, who has known Lambert for 15 years. "He's got more knowledge than I've ever had. He knows what he's doing."
Since leaving the Fairfax post in 1990 in a salary dispute, Lambert, 58, has been a consultant, working mostly with private companies.
Leesburg wasn't yet in a crisis mode when its council members first approached him, and his initial role was quite small. Last September the council asked him to serve as a facilitator at its annual two-day retreat. For a fee of $4,100, he helped them focus on their priorities, getting them to agree, for example, that they needed to hire a purchasing officer and a full-time town attorney.
Then Lambert's responsibilities--and his impact--mushroomed.
Town Manager Steven C. Brown asked him in November to assess the town government's computer technology. Lambert soon determined that Leesburg was moving too slowly in ensuring that the computers were Year 2000 compliant and recommended several steps to solve the problem, which the council promptly implemented.
Brown then asked Lambert to study why turnover in the Leesburg police department was so high. Lambert concluded that it wasn't because of low pay but because of officers' concerns that Chief Keith A. Stiles was too quick to order internal investigations. A few months later, Stiles was fired.
After the police department study came the event that put Lambert at center stage. Brown, who had been town manager since 1990, resigned March 1 as part of a deal with prosecutors who were looking into allegations that he had put questionable charges on the town's American Express card.
Finance director Paul E. York became acting town manager, which left no one to prepare the $71 million town budget for the next fiscal year. Enter Lambert.
Up to that point, Lambert had been paid separately for each of the projects he had taken on. In April, the council negotiated a more formal contract under which he gets $6,000 a month, plus expenses, through December. Lambert said he has earned about $30,000 in consulting fees since last November for his work in Leesburg.
Lambert currently is spending about 30 hours a week on town business. His duties range from working to revive plans for a library renovation to studying whether the town government needs to increase its work force of 200. He also is weeding through resumes for the positions of town manager, police chief, purchasing officer and town attorney. He said he hopes to fill all the positions by mid-September.
He laughed about his suddenly intense involvement with Leesburg's government, noting that he had vowed to himself not to return to public service after he left Fairfax.
"I was reluctant to get back into government. But I know everybody here, this is my hometown, so I said I'll do it," he said.
He added that it's government staff members who deserve credit for the various changes he has pushed through. "I really only listen to them, write down what they want and spit it back at them," he said. "It's mostly complete plagiarism at the highest level."
Lambert's recent influence in Loudoun has spilled beyond the confines of town hall. Inova Fairfax Hospital has hired him as a consultant to help broker a deal in which it would loan $5 million to Loudoun Healthcare Inc., operator of the financially troubled Loudoun Hospital Center.
Some Leesburg residents say that the town was well run before Lambert stepped in and that it's only because of the unusual turnover among top officials that his help was needed. Others argue that Leesburg badly needed someone with a Fairfax pedigree to modernize the town's government.
"We've been country people living country ways for a long time," said Stanley Caulkins, a longtime resident who runs a jewelry store in the town's historic district. "It takes somebody like [Lambert] with brains to keep the place working.
"I'm not saying the others don't have brains, but he has already done the things 10 years ago that Leesburg's going through now," Caulkins said. "He's bringing us out of the dark ages."
CAPTION: Former Fairfax county executive J. Hamilton Lambert is making the most of the key government decisions in Leesburg, but he is officially just a consultant.