No Talk of Labor Center As New Council Meets

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 12, 2006

With little fanfare, the Herndon Town Council last night held its first public session since voters unseated the mayor and four incumbents in May, a result widely viewed as a reflection of anger over the establishment of an employment center for immigrant workers.

New Mayor Steve J. DeBenedittis, who led a de facto slate of candidates critical of the town's role in opening the Herndon Official Workers Center, entered the council chambers to a smattering of applause. But DeBenedittis and other council members avoided any direct discussion of the center or its future.

"I look forward to working with each member of the council and with you over the next two years," DeBenedittis said in brief opening remarks.

The only hint of controversy came in discussion of an issue related to the day-labor center: concern about overcrowded housing conditions created by immigrant workers in the western Fairfax County town, where about 40 percent of residents are from Latin America.

Town Attorney Richard B. Kaufman asked the council for authorization to sue owners of two allegedly overcrowded homes, the latest in a series of legal actions the town has taken to address the issue. The council is to take formal action on the request next week.

The council voted in August to establish a center where immigrant day laborers could make contact with potential employers. Supporters said the measure was an alternative to a chaotic scene at a 7-Eleven where laborers gathered to find work. The center, in a residential neighborhood, is managed by a nonprofit and receives funding from the county.

In May, residents ousted Mayor Michael L. O'Reilly and four council members, replacing them with challengers who have called for major changes in where and how the center is operated. Some have called for a halt to the use of public funds in operating the center. Others want it moved, possibly to an industrial or commercial area.

The election results shifted the council from a 5-2 majority in favor of the center to an apparent 6-1 majority in opposition. Elected to the council were DeBenedittis, 38, a health club operator and political newcomer, along with William B. Tirrell Sr., Charlie D. Waddell, Connie Haines Hutchinson and David A. Kirby, all opponents of the facility. Two incumbents were returned, one who opposed the center, Dennis D. Husch, and J. Harlon Reece, a supporter.

The labor center thrust Herndon into the national debate over illegal immigration. At one point, Town Hall was forced to unplug its phone lines after listeners of a radio talk show deluged the switchboard with what officials described as hate calls regarding the day-labor site.

Although fewer than 3,000 people -- about 26 percent of the town's registered voters -- turned out for the May 2 contest, it was widely regarded as a test of public sentiment over immigration policy.

DeBenedittis said after the election that his victory reflected the feeling among voters that they had not been taken seriously when the issue was first debated.

"A lot of us felt our voices hadn't been heard," he said.

Last night the council voted to name Husch vice mayor. He thanked his colleagues but added: "At the end of the day, the vice mayor still ends up with one vote and $307 a month."

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