- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 3, 2006

The future of a day-laborer center in Herndon is unsettled now that voters have ousted the mayor and two Town Council members who supported the taxpayer-funded facility.

“Many [voters] sensed that they had told the [Town] Council, ‘Don’t do this,’” said William B. Tirrell, one of the newly elected council members who oppose the day-laborer center. “The sentiment out here I think was, ‘We didn’t want it, we told you we didn’t want it, and you did it anyway.’”

Voters on Tuesday elected Steve J. DeBenedittis as the town’s new mayor, ousting Mayor Michael O’Reilly, who supported the creation of a taxpayer-funded day-laborer center there.

The current council’s approval of the center last summer propelled the town in Northern Virginia to the forefront of the national immigration debate.

Some say changes in the center’s operation and location now are imminent, with the majority of council members opposed to the facility. The new council will take office July 1.

“We have a great opportunity here because the whole Town Council has kind of changed,” said new council member David A. Kirby. “We have a new mayor, like-minded council members, and we have until July 1 [so] we can get together and do some strategic planning.”

Incumbent council members Dennis D. Husch and J. Harlon Reece kept their seats. Mr. Husch was one of two council members who voted against the center. Mr. Reece supported the center.

Mr. Reece yesterday acknowledged that the center had a significant effect on the election, and that he and other council members who supported the site expected detractors to vote against them. He said he stands by his decision to support the center.

“[Day laborers] were hurting businesses, driving property values down,” he said. “It’s a very complicated issue. … We’ll just have to see how well the council works together. If the mind-set stays the same, [the center] will most likely close down.”

Mr. DeBenedittis and the four new council members — Connie H. Hutchinson, Charlie D. Waddell, Mr. Kirby and Mr. Tirrell — called for changes, including moving the center to a commercial zone and making sure only legal U.S. residents can seek work there.

“Any decisions that we make here in town, especially those that use tax dollars and public land, should apply with any applicable public laws,” Mr. DeBenedittis said.

The site’s current conditional-use permit is set to expire in 2007.

Mr. Tirrell said it should be moved to a commercially zoned area where the business community can pick up its funding, instead of taxpayers. “It’s time to pay … if you want the labor source,” he said.

The site is funded in part by a $175,000 grant from Fairfax County requested by the current council.

Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly said the funding could be affected by the new council. “The grant was provided in response to a request from Herndon,” said Mr. Connolly, a Democrat. “Obviously, under the new leadership of the town, that could change.”

George Taplin, founder of the Herndon Minutemen, speculated that the shift in power would signal the end of the center.

“The people in Herndon are no different from the rest of the country,” he said. “The vast majority of the public want illegal immigration stopped and want illegal aliens to go back to their home of origin and apply legally [for citizenship], just like everybody else.”

Christopher Farrell, research director at Judicial Watch, a nonprofit public-interest law firm that sued the town last fall on behalf of six residents who they say oppose the center, said yesterday the election results have no bearing on the court case.

“Politics and law are two different animals,” he said. “We’re representing the taxpaying citizens who have had their energy, time, money and resources used to support crime.”

Officials of the nonprofit group that manages the center said they are willing to discuss with the new council potential changes in the center’s operation.

“If come July 1 when the new council takes hold, they want to change the way things are done or look at different models or different sites, we’re in a position to listen, obviously,” said Bill Threlkeld, director of Project Hope and Harmony. “We can’t just ignore the votes that got this council up and ready to run in July.”

The immigration issue also played a role in other municipal elections held Tuesday.

Two proponents of regulating residential overcrowding in Manassas were elected to serve on the City Council.

Last winter, the City Council approved an ordinance that defined what constitutes a “family” and who was allowed to live in a home. The city later suspended the ordinance after civil rights and housing groups charged that it unfairly targeted Hispanics and immigrants.

“We have an existing zoning ordinance that needs to be rigorously enforced,” said Marc T. Aveni, one of the new council members. “The No. 1 concern I heard from residents as I went campaigning door to door was overcrowding.”

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