Leggett Vows Solution for Day-Labor Center

By Ann E. Marimow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 7, 2007

The morning after Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett took the oath of office, his newly minted senior aide headed north on Route 355 in his black Honda Pilot to confront one of the fledgling administration's most vexing challenges: day laborers in Gaithersburg.

Controversy over a plan to open a county-funded employment center for the workers, who are mostly immigrants, roiled Leggett's predecessor in his final weeks in office, ending with a heated exchange between county and city leaders -- and leaving Gaithersburg no closer to resolving the issue.

In his first month in office, Leggett (D) has directed special assistant Chuck Short -- a veteran of county debates that have pitted neighbors against newcomers -- to "get this resolved and put this behind us." Those involved in the discussions say Leggett has taken a fresh approach to the policy and politics, and they are hopeful a temporary site can be selected just outside of Gaithersburg as soon as this week.

Gaithersburg City Manager David B. Humpton said the administration of former county executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) "knew what a hot potato it was, and they wanted to keep it in Gaithersburg. There was no partnership. The partnership was a farce." With the Leggett administration, "I feel a lot of promise," Humpton said last week, acknowledging that "there are still going to be wrinkles in the road."

In the long term, Leggett wants to get Montgomery out of the business of paying for day-laborer centers by using economic development money to help train workers so they can open their own businesses that would offer temporary job services.

"You don't want to end up with centers scattered all over the county," Leggett said. "We have to come up with a solution for people to find work in a dignified manner and have less reliance on these sites."

More immediately, Short expects that the county will create a center using temporary trailers on county property just over the border from Gaithersburg. He has identified three possible locations near Shady Grove Road and Route 355 and said he is "very close" to making his recommendations to Leggett.

"Nothing moves very quickly in government, but we could move this one in 30 days," said Short, who was the county's health and human services director in the 1990s and helped open its first day-laborer center in Silver Spring.

During Duncan's tenure, the county's plan to pay for a day-laborer center at a location selected by Gaithersburg led to an emotional, year-long debate over how to handle the 40 to 50 workers who had been congregating in a church parking lot on North Frederick Avenue looking for temporary work as painters and landscapers.

County officials agreed to fund a center nearby modeled on those in Silver Spring and Wheaton. But the city backed out in the face of opposition from residents and business owners. City officials announced in November that they were unable to find an alternative site.

That prompted the county's chief administrative officer to accuse the city in a letter shared with the media of "attempting to wash its hands of this issue and push the day laborers outside of City borders." Humpton fired back that the county had ignored the city's "exhaustive site search."

Humpton called the exchange the "lowest point" of his 11-year tenure. The day the letter arrived, Humpton said, a Duncan aide warned, " 'You're going to get slapped today.' "

In his office last week, Humpton said he is encouraged by Leggett's willingness to consider county property that hugs the Gaithersburg line. And in a sign of improved relations, the City Council has delayed voting on an anti-solicitation ordinance to give Leggett and Mayor Sidney Katz an opportunity to meet next week.

Prentiss Searles, who lives one block from the current gathering spot in the city's historic district, was disappointed by the council's delay. He said he has grown frustrated by the public urination and loitering but is supportive of a center that would provide an organized setting for the workers in a nonresidential neighborhood.

The Rev. David Rocha, who passes out coffee to the workers most mornings, said the men "are ready to move" if there is transportation and an effort to inform potential employers of the new location. "They feel that they are now included in the conversation, and that's a very positive thing," Rocha said.

The prospect of moving outside the city limits appeals to the workers and residents such as Searles but has drawn criticism from others, who object to the county spending taxpayer dollars to assist any immigrants who are illegal. If the center is beyond the city's borders, it would not be subject to Gaithersburg's planning process.

Susan Payne, who met with Short last week and has helped derail potential city sites, decried what she said was a lack of data to justify such a center. "Ike Leggett is saying to the taxpayers, 'I want to bleed off resources that could be used for other programs and train people for jobs that aren't legally allowed to work.' "

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