Faced with the sudden resignation of Fairfax County Executive Robert J. O'Neill Jr., members of the county's Board of Supervisors agreed yesterday to wait until after the Nov. 2 election to launch an effort to find his replacement.
In closed session, board members agreed to suspend formal discussions about a new county executive until after Election Day, when the composition of a new board will be decided. All 10 incumbents are up for reelection.
O'Neill, who was hired in part to reform the county's enormous bureaucracy but has been stymied in some high-profile efforts, said he will stay in his job until Jan. 14, when he leaves to become president of a government policy think tank in Washington.
Now that the region's most populous jurisdiction is facing the loss of its top executive for the second time in three years, some members of the board said yesterday they question the need for another expensive and time-consuming search for job candidates.
Several members said they lean toward quick action to appoint Deputy County Executive Anthony H. Griffin to the top job.
Supervisor Gerald E. Connolly (D-Providence) said yesterday that he will try to persuade his colleagues to support Griffin, 52, a longtime senior manager in Fairfax who was a finalist with O'Neill after a national search two years ago. Connolly said another such search would waste time and money.
"I happen to believe we have a pretty stellar leader already in Tony Griffin," Connolly said. "I would hope we could prevail on Tony to become the county executive on a permanent basis."
Several other supervisors praised Griffin, saying he had been the board's No. 2 choice in 1997, after O'Neill. But they stopped short of advocating him for the position.
"Certainly, Tony has a proven record," Supervisor T. Dana Kauffman (D-Lee) said. "I think many of us would look favorably on him as our executive."
Supervisor Michael R. Frey (Sully), who has joined his three Republican colleagues on the board in frequently criticizing O'Neill, also praised Griffin. But Frey said he believes a nationwide search for a new leader might still be necessary.
Griffin said yesterday that he has not been approached by any board member about taking the top job permanently or in an acting capacity. He held the title of acting county executive for nine months in 1996 and 1997, before O'Neill replaced former executive William J. Leidinger, and is generally considered to be the county's day-to-day manager.
"I think it's premature to know whether I'd want it or not," Griffin said. "All of this is rather sudden and unanticipated."
But he added: "If they want to talk with me about it, I would be happy to talk to them."
Any successor to O'Neill needs to be given more latitude to reform the 11,000-worker county government without board interference, Fairfax Chamber of Commerce President James W. Dyke Jr. said. The chamber has been critical of the supervisors' meddling during O'Neill's tenure.
"I think you need to select a person who is innovative and is a leader, and then give them room to run the county," Dyke said. "If anyone is going to be successful, you are going to have to give them room to do that."
Dyke said the business community should be part of the selection process and suggested that the board take its time finding a county executive who will pursue innovative ideas and forge close relationships with businesses.
"Bob O'Neill's departure should in no way send a signal that the good-government reform initiatives he started will be abandoned here," Dyke said referring to O'Neill's only partly successful efforts to merge some departments, link employee pay to performance and hire new top managers.
Meanwhile, board members, county employees and others spent yesterday digesting the sudden news that O'Neill is leaving and wondering what will become of the longer-term changes that he had begun.
A former city manager in Hampton, Va., O'Neill explained his failure to get quick results in Fairfax by arguing that long-term change takes time. Several supervisors said they had been willing to give him the time he wanted.
In the end, time was the one thing that O'Neill would not have.
Board of Supervisors Chairman Katherine K. Hanley (D) vowed to continue the programs O'Neill started.
"Things move forward," she said. "The board is still here. Those things are still up to the board."
O'Neill officially submitted his letter of resignation at the Board of Supervisors meeting yesterday, telling supervisors that he plans to remain actively involved in governing the county during the next 90 days.
O'Neill said he is leaving to become president of the National Academy of Public Administration, a nonprofit group chartered by Congress. In an e-mail to employees, he called his decision a difficult one, and he praised the county employees he has led for two years.
"Fairfax County is blessed with outstanding employees and it has been my privilege to be part of this organization," O'Neill wrote. "I plan to remain very involved until my departure in mid-January."
Hanley accepted O'Neill's resignation at the meeting. She thanked O'Neill for his service to the county and praised his efforts to improve the county's efficiency.
"Fairfax's loss is the country's gain," she said.
Most of the other supervisors also praised O'Neill. Gerald W. Hyland (D-Mount Vernon), pledged to continue O'Neill's programs to help aging parts of the county.
"He has provided us the tools and the blueprint for transforming areas of the county for the better," Hyland said.