Thursday, November 23, 2006
CHALK UP a victory for the xenophobes and the not-in-my-back-yard crowd in the city of Gaithersburg, and a setback for tolerance and decency. After a fruitless yearlong search for a site to place a day-laborer center, city officials have declared defeat, turned tail and thrown themselves -- and dozens of immigrant day laborers -- on the mercy of Montgomery County. Now, to add insult to injury, the officials are weighing a prohibition on workers soliciting jobs at curbside, a measure that would impede the city's own residents from seeking gainful employment.
It's a sad story and a shameful one. Just over a year ago, Gaithersburg was well on its way to doing what other immigrant-heavy localities in this area and elsewhere have done -- make some accommodation for a group of local workers whose muscle and services are clearly in demand. But the site chosen for the employment center, a disused water treatment facility across the street from a parking lot where the workers had gathered each morning for months, did not pass muster with some neighbors -- or with the activists who have made harassment of day laborers their stock in trade. And neither, to shorten a sorry saga, did the dozens of other sites considered by the city.
At that point, city officials could have shown some backbone. After all, Gaithersburg's day laborers live, shop, pay rent and often do jobs in the city, and they have been seeking work at impromptu and shifting locations in the city for years. And the county was offering to foot the bill for the employment center. But instead of dealing with a problem, city officials folded. Rather than choosing a site, minimizing the impact on the surrounding area and providing whatever staff support, policing and political leadership would make it work, the city slunk away. "After an exhaustive search," city manager David B. Humpton wrote, "it does not appear possible" to place an employment center within the city's 10 square miles that would not offend someone. He urged the county, which has maintained smooth-running day-labor centers in Silver Spring and Wheaton for some time, to deal with the problem.
The trouble is, governing is about making choices, and not every choice will be universally favored. In this instance, Gaithersburg's leaders -- Mayor Sidney A. Katz and the five members of the City Council -- have simply shirked their responsibility to govern.