The resignation of County Executive J. Hamilton Lambert was accepted yesterday by the Fairfax Board of Supervisors, ending a tense week-long face-off over whether the board would increase his salary to keep him on the job another year.
In the end, neither side would blink. The board offered to extend Lambert's $129,000-a-year contract for another year without any sweetening, according to board Vice Chairman Martha V. Pennino (D-Centreville). In response, Lambert decided to retire on Dec. 31 "for personal reasons," she said.
Friends said Lambert wanted an expression of the board's continued support for him at a time when he was increasingly beleagured, and that the most tangible signal they could offer was more money. Supervisors said they didn't want him to quit, but that they found it financially impossible to approve his request for paid compensatory time -- somewhere between $10,000 and $50,000 a year -- when the county is in an economic squeeze.
And when the board was inundated with angry calls from county residents after Lambert's request was publicized last week, the board realized it was politically impossible too, several members said.
The board appointed Richard A. King, deputy county executive for public safety, as the interim county executive for one year beginning Jan. 1. The supervisors said they would begin a search for a new county executive, but that with elections just a year away, the board that takes office in January 1992 should select its own executive, supervisors said.
King, 59, who joined the county as a police officer in 1955 and served as the police chief from 1975 to 1981, will be paid $118,000 in his new post, up from his current annual pay of $110,000. He said he has "no aspiration to be the permanent county executive."
Supervisors were visibly shaken yesterday when, after meeting with Lambert in a private session, they emerged to formally accept his resignation. Chairman Audrey Moore (D) said none of the supervisors wanted Lambert to retire, and close associates of Lambert said he did not want to end his 31-year career with the county.
Lambert, however, stands to make more money next year as a retiree -- about $136,000, including a payoff for unused leave -- than if he had continued as county executive. His pension will be $102,000 a year after that.
After it was disclosed last week that he was asking for more compensation -- specifically, he wanted to be paid for compensatory time for working more than eight hours a day -- supervisors said their offices were flooded with negative phone calls from constituents.
With increasing budget deficits and rising concern about county taxes and spending, supervisors said, they could not justify a major increase in Lambert's salary, so they accepted his resignation. Lambert notified the board of his intention to retire in a letter 12 days ago.
Lambert, showing the sense of humor and perspective that have made him one of the area's most admired bureaucrats, told the board that on his way to work yesterday morning, he drove by the county's old courthouse -- currently under renovation -- and considered his future.
"In September 1959, I started as a draftsman in the basement of the old courthouse, and 31 years later they finally got the roof fixed, so I figured it was time for me to go," he said.
Although he has been mentioned as a possible candidate for the top jobs at Metro or the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, Lambert said he has no immediate plans other than ensuring a smooth transition for his successor. "I'm going to step back, take a deep breath and decide what the future will be," he said. He declined to discuss the details of his departure.
The decision ends Lambert's extraordinary county career, during which he rose from an assistant map draftsman to become one of the area's best-known and most influential power brokers. Supervisor Lilla Richards (D-Dranesville) cried as her colleagues took turns hailing Lambert's accomplishments and wishing him well.
"We need to say that we have the best county executive in the United States," Moore said. "It is a tremendous loss to Fairfax County."
Noting that Lambert faithfully served both Republicans and Democrats, Supervisor Thomas M. Davis III (R-Mason) said, "I can't think of anyone, elected or appointed, who's made more of a contribution to the county than J Lambert."
State Sen. Clive L. DuVal 2d (D-McLean), dean of Northern Virginia's legislative delegation, said Lambert's service has been "excellent."
Prominent developer John T. "Til" Hazel said Lambert "has done a superb job on behalf of the citizens of this county." Well-known civic activist Sally Ormsby said: "The county is indebted to him. He is a very adept manager and consensus-builder and his shoes will be most difficult to fill."
Not everyone, however, said they would be sad to see Lambert go.
"It's the best day's work he's done in 10 years," Marcia Dykes, founder of the Citizens for Sensible Taxation anti-tax organization, said upon learning of his retirement. "I only hope his successor will be more sympathetic to the needs of the citizens than the spendthrifts who have bankrupted us."
Lambert's power as county executive occasionally led to complaints that he exercised too much control. A message frequently delivered by citizen activists in the last board election was that the supervisors should lead the county staff, and not allow the staff to exert so much influence on policy direction.
When the current board took office in 1988, it enhanced oversight of the county bureaucracy, essentially recapturing the responsibility and initiative that had been ceded to Lambert by earlier boards.
Citizen activists and some supervisors viewed the move as a clipping of Lambert's wings, and it led to stepped-up criticism of the both county staff and Lambert. Department heads complained of increased workloads and "micro-management" by the supervisors.
In his years as county executive, Lambert frequently took the blame and political flak for mistakes. In exchange, the board heaped praise on him, and, according to his associates, he thrived on it. Over the last couple of years, barbs have been delivered with increasing regularity and severity and the plaudits have been few and far between.
Thus Lambert's decision to retire did not come as a complete surprise. About six months ago, he started telling confidants that he was considering leaving county government around Nov. 18, his 50th birthday, when he could start collecting pension.
He cited a laundry list of complaints, associates said: the Board of Supervisors seemed consumed with internal strife and was taking more frequent potshots at the county staff and him personally; an anti-tax revolt was gripping the county and, as the chief symbol of a supposedly bloated bureacracy, he was a favorite target; newspaper editorials ridiculed his lack of education; Fairfax residents called for his resignation.
And there were other complaints: Republican Party officials were privately plotting to make him a campaign issue in next year's elections; his weight was ballooning and cartoonists were having a field day; doctors read him the riot act during a checkup -- he ate too much, he smoked too much, he worked too much.
It was humiliating, he told his friends, and he felt that he had lost control, both personally and professionally.
Despite stories in local newspapers that Lambert was considering retiring, he was irked that the board as a group never asked him what his plans were, friends said. As much as anything, they said, Lambert submitted his retirement letter as a signal that he wanted more public support from them.
"If money was the issue, he wouldn't be where he is, because he's had countless offers far in excess of what he's making," a close friend said. "His question was how much commitment there was to him on the board, and money was the only way the board could express their level of commitment to him."
In the end, the board decided that divorce was preferable to making a more expensive commitment to a continuing relationship and Lambert decided not to back down.
The Lambert affair was reminiscent of a 1984 flap involving William J. Burkholder, who was county school superintendent. Burkholder announced plans to resign. He then negotiated a $157,000-a-year contract with the School Board that provoked such a furor that he was forced to leave the job anyway. The pay package included his regular salary plus retirement benefits that he would have forfeited by remaining on the job.
Lambert's retirement will close the book on a career with the Fairfax government that is legendary not only in the Washington area, but also across the country.
The son of a horse trainer from Loudoun County, he graduated from high school there in 1959 and immediately went to work for Fairfax. Despite not having a college education, he rose steadily through the ranks, amassing unparalleled power while maintaining a common touch with other county employees that won him unshakable loyalty. As the county's chief administrative officer, he oversaw a $2.3 billion budget and more than 10,000 workers.
His political cunning and economic judgment were especially valued in Richmond, where Lambert has many good friends among state lawmakers. In 1988, City & State magazine named him one of the top three county executives in the country. In December 1979, the Council of Governments presented him with its Metropolitan Achievement Award for "a major achievment of lasting significance to all of Metropolitan Washington" in recognition of his crafting of a regional sewer agreement.
In declaring him "Washingtonian of the Year" in January 1982, Washingtonian magazine wrote, "His life is a page from the book of American dreams: J. Hamilton Lambert has worked his way from county map draftsman to Fairfax County executive."
The magazine credited him with helping to make relations among local governments "among the best in the country," noting that "Lambert has had a profound effect on local officials."