Town Manager Takes Job in Staunton, Va.

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 3, 2007

Herndon Town Manager Stephen F. Owen, a key figure in the community's bitter debate over illegal immigration, resigned yesterday to become city manager of Staunton, Va.

Owen, 49, served under three mayors -- Richard Thoesen, Michael L. O'Reilly and the incumbent, Stephen J. DeBenedittis -- who all struggled with major demographic shifts in the western Fairfax town of 23,000, which is now one-quarter Hispanic.

As town manager, Owen implemented a controversial plan approved by O'Reilly and the Town Council in 2005 to establish a publicly funded assembly site for day laborers. The Herndon Official Workers Center was intended to give Latino day laborers an alternative to soliciting work on the town's streets.

But voter unhappiness over the decision led to the defeat of O'Reilly and two council members who supported establishment of the center. The new council, headed by DeBenedittis, is seeking a new operator for the center, one that will check workers' immigration status. The council also has passed measures designed to force illegal immigrants out of town, including enrollment of some police officers in a federal program that will train them to enforce immigration laws and begin deportation proceedings.

Owen could not be reached for comment yesterday. DeBenedittis said Owen's departure to a larger municipality was a natural career move unrelated to the immigration issue.

"I think he's an excellent town manager," he said. "There was no desire on my part to have him move. I've learned a lot from him, and he's a good friend."

Before he was mayor, O'Reilly served on the council that hired Owen in 2003. He called Owen's resignation "a tremendous loss" for Herndon.

He said that although Owen never told him explicitly that the immigration debate compelled him to leave, the controversy had taken a toll.

"I know that it has been difficult for Steve to go from a council that took action the way we did and had a different personality than this one," O'Reilly said. "But I've never known Steve to run from a challenge."

Owens resignation is effective March 1. He is scheduled to begin work in Staunton on March 12 at an annual salary of $139,500.

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