A little more than six months ago, on June 5, Richard "Rick" Thoesen was sworn in, for the second time, as the mayor of Herndon. Thoesen previously served as the town's chief elected officer from 1984-1990. On Saturday morning, Thoesen sat down for breakfast (a plain waffle and several cups of decaf coffee) at the Amphora
Diner on Elden Street to reflect on the year that was in Herndon, his first six months as mayor and what lies ahead for himself and the town he leads in 2003.
<b>Q</b>: Six months have passed since you took the reins as mayor, again. How do you think the first half-year has gone?
<b>Thoesen</b>: I feel good about it. Some things haven't been tackled as quickly as I had hoped, but my approach has always been to create a plan and then work a plan. I think we have a plan in place and in order to make the plan effective, you have to delegate and I am sure that we have some folks energized to get started. I think the plan of action that was distributed to the community gives us 16 initiatives that are very important to our town. What I am happy about is that it gives staff a clear sign that this is what the council wants to work on. Now, when we get into the details, we are not going to agree, but at least it's a start. Now the real test is going to be to see if we can make it happen and I feel good about that. The chemistry on the council is good. If you've watched me for six months, you understand that I really do foster open communication and I'm quite good at asking dumb questions. And I don't mind if we have controversies addressed at the table because I think that helps us foster resolution.
<b>Q</b>: How's the search for the new town manager going?
<b>Thoesen</b>: It's going really well. We essentially did [the search] without outside consultants. We did it in-house. I am very proud we didn't use very much consulting money and we were able to do it ourselves. Now the test is picking between the real capable candidates that we have and, as a body, deciding on one. We can't hire two. Any time you have a new town manager, it has to be exciting.
<b>Q</b>: What's the time frame for the announcement?
<b>Thoesen</b>: We have three more interviews on Tuesday and then I will ask council to give me their first impression. If it looks like we agree, then it could be very soon. Although, I obviously need time to negotiate with the person, but if we have a tie between two or three individuals, it could take some time and then we would probably be looking at after Christmas. Then we might have to re-interview. So, I am not sure. I am not one for taking votes and saying, "OK, 4-3, we are going with so and so." I don't think that is the way to choose your chief operating officer.
<b>Q</b>: What is your response to those that have called for the names of the finalists to be made public?
<b>Thoesen</b>: I didn't respond to Tom Grein's [the editor of the Herndon Observer] article. I feel it is a personnel action and my first reaction was to protect the applicants. The form of government in the United States is a republic; people elect representatives to represent them. In this case, we have a very seasoned council and I think we do a very good job at representing. Second, let's say we had three top candidates and we brought them to a public forum. How would we make a decision then? Would we ask for a vote of the public? That would take the ability of council to use their judgment. Would the audience judge this person on his or her speaking prowess? There is so much more that goes into making an effective town manager. In effect, what would we do other than create a dog and pony show? I purposely didn't respond to Tom's column. I have a great respect for editors and in the leadership role; sometimes you have to take the criticism even when you don't think it is deserved. It's our job to find the best and brightest and to be accountable for that.
<b>Q</b>: OK, you won't tell us names, but you said "his or her," can we assume that there are both men and women candidates among the five finalists for town manager.
<b>Q</b>: How are you different the second time around as mayor? Have you changed?
<b>Thoesen</b>: I'm much different, now. I am much more seasoned in terms of having lived life, including 20 years of being a student of management under my belt. Plus, I have the technical experience of being in local government for over 15 years.
<b>Q</b>: You genuinely seem to like being mayor, from what I can tell.
<b>Thoesen</b>: I love it.
<b>Q</b>: What about it, do you love? Obviously, it isn't the pay and the hours.
<b>Thoesen</b>: Steven Covey, the author, gives you the metaphor of everyday putting on the harness and the yoke to serve your community. He feels public service is in the greatest interest and I do, too. Nothing better than having the public trust and working on their behalf to better the community. It is a yoke of honor, no question about it. You can't buy public trust. That is what I enjoy the most.
<b>Q</b>: What do you like most about this community?
<b>Thoesen</b>: That it is inclusive. Anybody who wants to get involved in this community and wants to make a difference will have the opportunity and the platform. I think Jean Schmidt of the Herndon Clinic proves that. In addition, the first mayor of this town and the current mayor of this town are from New York--that's an inclusive town.
<b>Q</b>: What is the biggest accomplishment in your first six months?
<b>Thoesen</b>: Developing a sense of teamwork.
<b>Q</b>: You talk a lot about teamwork and chemistry. You hear about it in sports that, no matter how much talent you have, if a team has poor chemistry, it won't go anywhere. Why is team harmony or chemistry so important in the political world?
<b>Thoesen</b>: There is a word used often, it is probably used too often, and it is synergy. The sum of the parts is greater than each individual partner. People can really become energized and really create great things with a common vision and you can't have a common vision unless you have chemistry and you are working together. The difference between being a pro football team and Super Bowl champion is chemistry--the ability to work together and make things happen. It starts with respecting each other's opinions and each other's values. If we are in a rowboat and we are all rowing a different way, we won't get anywhere and we won't get there fast.
<b>Q</b>: Sometimes good chemistry is more obvious than others. Recently, one of the more heated discussions in the work session was the "black market labor" and "day laborer" discussion. Where do you see that issue next year?
<b>Thoesen</b>: We are going to put that issue back on the table next year on Jan. 28, but I have to do a better job at facilitating this time. I made a mistake, last time, I should have listened and facilitated discussion and let it go to analysis rather than being judgmental. One of my tasks is not to be a judge. I am only one of seven when it comes to decision-making. Dennis [Husch] and I really had the only heated discussion. Dennis and I have talked since then and I understand where he is coming from. We had a tradition in town that it is OK to disagree as long as it doesn't get disagreeable. So, I have to take the heat on that one.
<b>Q</b>: Recently, I was speaking with Robert Simon, the founder of Reston, and he said that he admired Herndon's ability to get things done. He said he didn't know how you did it but that when Herndon wanted something, they would get it. Is that true, and if so why?
<b>Thoesen</b>: Definitely. No question. Herndon has always been about a good quality of life. We all have the same goals and that is to have good recreation amenities, housing inventory and opportunity for people and groups to have a sense of belonging. And that spirit has been here since I have been here and probably well before that. I think it helps when you have a mayor like Tom Rust for 20 years. I think that helps create a sense of continuity.
<b>Q</b>: How do you two, yourself and Delegate Rust, differ?
<b>Thoesen</b>: I think our leadership style is a little different.
<b>Q</b>: How so?
<b>Thoesen</b>: I probably spend too much time trying to find consensus and that takes a lot of time. I work too hard on getting people involved in the decision rather than moving towards efficiency. But I am very comfortable with that because if you are going to make decisions that are going to last a long time when you leave the table, nobody feels resentful. It's basic human psychology, if you are always striving just for the fourth vote and it is win-at-all-costs then people will start to resent the process and feel left out. I think it is very important that I keep reminding myself that I am just one of seven and that we are representing 22,000. We need to make sure everyone feels ownership in the town. Tom and I have always had a great relationship and I have always admired him, so it is hard to point out the differences. You will have to draw your own conclusions. Our mission and goal has always been the same.
<b>Q</b>: Mr. Rust moved from here to Richmond, do you have any similar further political ambitions.
</b>Thoesen</b>: No. Over the years, my wife has had to take on the lion's share of family responsibilities. I will probably retire here in the next four or five years and enjoy her company. But I am sure I will always do public service, whether it's raking a ball field or serving on a committee because working with people fulfills me, so I won't give that up, totally.
<b>Q</b>: Speaking of ball fields, you have about one more month on the Fairfax County Park Authority, as the Dranesville representative on the board.
<b>Thoesen</b>: Yes, I will be writing my letter of resignation, this weekend as a matter of fact. The [Board of Supervisors] will vote in January on the new director for the park authority and that is the deputy director, Michael Kane. It was a unanimous recommendation to the board. I feel good about that. The process was both enriching and inspiring. We took our time and really listened to one another and when we left the table, we left with unanimity and that is good. I am hoping to do the same here in town with respect to the town manager.
<b>Q</b>: Depending on whom you talk to, some people like to fuel a rivalry between Herndon and Reston. Is there anything to it, or is it nothing more than petty high school-inspired silliness?
<b>Thoesen</b>: No. Sticks and stones. I think we are in a situation where Herndon has its own personality and its own confidence, as far as I am concerned. We are a leader in many ways. Any time, you receive criticism and you react to it, you are not showing confidence. And most times, you receive criticism; you get it because people really don't know the true story. Organizations and personalities fit every town. People gravitate towards what they like the most.
<b>Q</b>: What frustrates you most about this job?
<b>Thoesen</b>: Things take forever. That's partly my fault. When I go to my regular job, I have the luxury of concentrating on my job everyday. When I go to the mayor's job, in between meetings and meeting people, I may have two hours a week to really focus. So, by the time you get 10 hours done, you are five weeks into your period. So, I am very frustrated that I don't have the time to focus on this job everyday.
<b>Q</b>: Speaking of patience, do your constituents have that same sort of patience? If they don't necessarily see concrete results or the endgame, do you get complaints even if they understand that you are working hard to find answers?
<b>Thoesen</b>: Absolutely. I get that all the time. I usually try to talk to those people over the phone or in their backyard, and it never ceases to reinforce my belief that through a matter of discourse most of the people understand that the remedy isn't going to be easy, but the fact that somebody listened and tried to find an answer, most everybody really appreciates that. Even though we field many complaints, the vast majority of citizens always say, "thanks."
<b>Q</b>: You were a captain in the United States Army, how did your military background help you for this job?
<b>Thoesen</b>: Other than a sense of patriotism, it created a sense of confidence that I could discipline myself to get something done and try new things. Most importantly, the Army brought me my wife Judy. We met in the service and got married in the service and that has been the stability of my life.
<b>Q</b>: How long you been married now?
<b>Thoesen</b>: It was 1969, so 33 years.
<b>Q</b>: What about your engineering background, how does that help?
<b>Thoesen</b>: You see utility management plans. You see how communities work together to solve their problems in terms of water, transportation, and public facilities. So having that background, which is a very technical background, helps you solve many public works problems. ... But as a CEO of the town, I have to delegate, so my management background in the engineering arena has helped me separate myself from the details. Obviously, we are going to be a successful organization if we rely heavily on the town manager and his or her people. Being a project manager in consulting engineering and now being an operating officer for [Loudoun County Sanitation Authority] helps me understand that you have to get your work done through others and you can't do it yourself.
<b>Q</b>: Was that a hard lesson to learn?
<b>Thoesen</b>: Very difficult.
<b>Q</b>: How important, both for yourself and the community, was getting the arts center finalized this year?
<b>Thoesen</b>: It was very important. It was one of my major reasons for running for mayor. I think the cultural arts center will always serve our community as a beacon of hope. The cultural arts center is not just for plays and dances. It really is a symbol of a melting pot. I don't know much about the arts, I'm an engineer, but the arts throughout history have helped man change and understand one another. I think it will do much the same for the Herndon area and that is why it was such a passion for me.
<b>Q</b>: Twenty years from now, where do you see this community?
<b>Thoesen</b>: I see it as a very diverse community. I see it as a continuing to be an inclusive town. I see Herndon as still being that beacon of light.
<b>Q</b>: What was it that drew you here? How did you settle in Herndon?
<b>Thoesen</b>: It was strictly by accident. I stayed in a motel and my wife and son were still back in a hotel in Salisbury, Md. We had just got out of the service in 1974. I was working with a Realtor who was showing me Sterling, Reston and anything but Herndon. We drove through Herndon and by Four Seasons and I asked to stop to see this new development. The Realtor said to me I didn't want to live in Herndon because they have a separate tax. "Let me just look," I said. Immediately, I knew it would make a perfect location to raise a family and told my wife the next day and put a deposit down without her ever seeing it. At that point, our highest priority was getting the family back together again. It's been an excellent decision, even if it was purely an accident.
<b>Q</b>: So if you get a few minutes of free time, where do you like to go in this town to get away?
<b>Thoesen</b>: A couple of restaurants — drink a few wines, have something to eat. I go to the movies a lot. Nearly every Friday night, my wife and I are at Worldgate watching some movie. We are together and unwinding.
<b>Q</b>: Any new year's resolutions for 2003?
<b>Thoesen</b>: No, I really don't. Two years ago, I promised to lose 10 pounds and I gained 15. So, I don't want to do that one again. [Long pause] I just want to remind myself of the big picture and stay relaxed. That is hard for me because I am a double-A battery. But as I get older, I am trying much harder to relax. And as I have gotten older, I really have gotten comfortable letting other people do it. I have a high level of trust in other people and I know if you give them a chance, they will do a good job and your ego doesn't get in the way, too much.
<b>Q</b>: Finish this sentence, On June 5, 2003, your first year will be a success if ...
<b>Thoesen</b>: If we are still working together. Many of the problems that we face are not easily solved. It's not a football game, we are talking about tough social and economic issues and I think our job as a council, and my job as a facilitator, is to keep hope alive and to keep an optimistic outlook. We need to keep looking for solutions in a patient way. In my whole career as a manager, anytime I have gotten angry or frustrated, it has always backfired. I have never been able to convince an employee that they were in a safe, secure and creative environment if ever I displayed emotion. It's amazing that people need self-confidence to solve problems. If you don't have that kind of patience and trust and belief, they can feel it. Maybe that is what happened to the Redskins. The old adage is true, the best athletes play relaxed.
<b>Q</b>: So were you an athlete yourself?
<b>Thoesen</b>: I was a track runner.
<b>Q</b>: What did you run?
<b>Thoesen</b>: I ran the 440 for Manhattan College and my high school. Track was an interesting sport. My brothers played football and basketball, but I gravitated towards track. What I liked about track is that if you are playing football and you get tired or lazy, people will knock you on your head, but if you run track and you get tired or lazy, nothing happens. They just run past you. So, what happens with track — which was essentially an individual sport — was that you had to motivate yourself and discipline yourself to never give up under any circumstances because there were no consequences besides falling behind. I have always taken that with me.
<b>Q</b>: So how do you learn the values of teamwork in a sport like that if you are not out there with four other guys on basketball court or 10 other guys on a football field?
<b>Thoesen</b>: You help each other. If your track mate was having trouble with the discus, you might go over there and watch him practice for 15 minutes and encourage him. That is where the teamwork comes in; it is quite phenomenal, really.
<b>Q</b>: Back in June, when you were sworn in, you talked about the need for affordable housing. What is the solution? How do we get there?
<b>Thoesen</b>: As a region, we really have to explore the housing solutions. As the Town of Herndon, we can't do it ourselves. We need to start to tackle some market housing and affordable housing, because the housing stock being built today is just way too expensive for you, my daughter and people that aren't making a high salary. Now in terms of overcrowding here, as people have no place to live they will do everything they can to sneak into a house rather than sleep on a park bench. The challenge is much greater than the town itself. But we will still pay attention and look at situations. I really believe my talks with people in the residential communities, that if it were invisible, they would not care what goes on behind four walls. When it becomes manifested by yards being unkempt, paint peeling off, and cars everywhere — then it is very difficult. On a local level, we are going to try and foster a sense of responsibility and open a dialogue with people so that if they are prone to have a very large extended family that they will do it in a very responsible manner.
<b>Q</b>: Finally, what are your top two or three priorities for the coming year?
<b>Thoesen</b>: Really working to improve the process of improvement for our neighborhood preservation. That is really important. Second, is to take care of Alabama Drive. I really want to buy the property owned by Mrs. Park and work with the County of Fairfax to develop a permanent Neighborhood Resource Center. That will be a clear flagship to the community to say that we are progressive. Some people don't want it in their neighborhood and they wish it were someplace else, but I think we can sign our own NRC to include an educational center, community policing and maybe the Herndon Free Clinic. And of course, I feel like we can have a hiring site there, too. People ask me why I would do that to that neighborhood on Alabama. The fact remains, if we go further from that location, the chances that we will have two day-laborer sites is greater. We can effect a more responsible business community so that when they pick up these day laborers we know they will be earnest in making sure they take care of these people. And for those that don't want to participate and go to a second and unauthorized spot, I can then say to those folks, "You are in the wrong spot. You need to go here and if you are not going to cooperate with our community than I am not going to help you." We will end up with a responsible core of day laborers and businesses and people on the fringe who are not here to work in a way that is harmonious then I am able to tackle that. Whereas, if I just tackle that now, there is no alternative I can give these folks. Those are my priorities.