The Herndon Town Council approved an unusual resolution last night to censure one of its own members, Ann V. Null, for expressing views about immigrants and other residents that are "discriminatory, offensive and disrespectful of the office she holds," according to the document.
Null sparked a firestorm when she wrote a letter in a local newspaper calling for the dismantling of a town resource center that provides social services to the poor and immigrants. At one point she characterized immigrants as "cooks, maids, janitors and gardeners."
At heated council meetings over the past few weeks, dozens of angry residents have protested her letter, with a few calling it "racist." But several residents rallied to her defense at last night's meeting.
Council members harshly criticized Null before unanimously passing the censure in front of a rapt audience. "I personally take no pleasure in voting to support this resolution," said council member Carol Bruce. "There have been folks who said this was too harsh of a resolution. I don't believe it is. Some of the things that were said have done serious damage, damage that we'll have to work through to repair."
The controversy is the latest sign of the ethnic tensions that continue to simmer in Herndon. Because it is a small town of four square miles and has always had a supply of affordable housing, Herndon has felt the region's demographic changes more sharply than many of its neighbors.
Once a farming hamlet, Herndon now has the highest proportion of foreign-born residents of any jurisdiction in the Washington region -- 38 percent of its 22,000 people, according to the 2000 U.S. Census. During the 1990s, its Latino population alone grew 264 percent, while the proportion of non-Hispanic white residents dropped from 78 percent to 58 percent.
At the epicenter of Herndon's issues is a 7-Eleven at Elden Street and Alabama Drive where day laborers congregate each day in hopes that employers will come by and give them temporary work. The site became what it is spontaneously, and some residents consider it an eyesore.
Null, who calls herself a novice at politics, decided to run for office after the council proposed creating an official day laborer site next to her home. Dozens of neighbors encouraged her to run for town council; she narrowly won last May.
In her controversial letter published Sept. 10 in the Herndon Observer, Null argued that the town should close the Neighborhood Resource Center, and that its many social programs could be moved to other locations. Of Herndon's $37 million budget, the center receives $125,000, town officials said.
"By treating immigrants -- thousands of miles from home -- as if they can't navigate Herndon's four-plus square miles to receive services throughout the greater community, the NRC is practicing the bigotry of low expectations," she wrote.
In the same letter, she took a shot at a town proposal to build a cultural center. She derided "prima donna 'artistes' and their immigrant support staff (cooks, maids, janitors and gardeners)."
Mayor Michael L. O'Reilly said he drafted the censure after scores of offended residents sent e-mails and spoke publicly against Null.
"I thought the words were discriminatory," he said. "I don't really have an opinion of whether they were racist or not. I think they were hurtful to our community, and that's why we are going forward with the resolution."
Null apologized for her choice of words yesterday, adding that she did not mean to be racially insensitive.
"It's really hard to address these issues in a politically correct way, and that's where I'm getting nailed," she said. Her colleagues "are all learned politicians and I'm the newbie. . . . I'm not going to say the letter was my finest writing, and I regret it."
But she said she has no plans to resign and stood by her opposition to the Neighborhood Resource Center. She said she often hears from constituents who complain that the town's policies are attracting undocumented immigrants to Herndon.
"If you look at our neighbors, it does cause you to wonder why Reston and Chantilly and Sterling and Great Falls and all the adjacent neighboring communities have had a different rate of change," she said.
But O'Reilly said the past few weeks have shown that although a few residents are upset about the town's demographic changes, most see its diversity as a strength.
"I'm not sure that there's anything that can or should be done to try to convince people or to change the demographics of our town. We want to make our community the best place we can make it to live in," he said.
Vice Mayor Darryl C. Smith, the first African American to serve on Herndon's seven-member council, said Null's proposal to close down the Neighborhood Resource Center is a terrible idea. To scatter its social service programs across the town would confuse its recipients and require them to find transportation.
"How heartless is that?" he asked, pointing out that many of them are poor, work several jobs and don't have cars.
Smith added that council members, who are all at-large representatives, "are supposed to work for everybody, for the good of the entire town . . . not a small group of constituents."