Herndon's fireworks came three days early this year.
Just 72 hours before the annual fireworks show lit up the night sky over Bready Park last Friday night, a pyrotechnic display of a different kind erupted in the town municipal center's cramped out-of-the-way conference room. At the end of the June 1 work session, councilman Dennis Husch threatened to boycott an upcoming hearing on the proposed temporary day laborer site because the mayor had scheduled the town hall-style meeting for a local church rather than the town's municipal building, a more traditional site for council proceedings.
"If you do that, I will boycott that meeting," Husch said, looking at Mayor Richard Thoesen. "I wish you would change your mind."
For about two hours, the work session hummed along smoothly and decidedly uneventful as the council ran through everything from resolutions on "National Night Out" to stepped-up solid waste enforcement and a conditional use permits for a new dry cleaning business. At the end of session, Thoesen, as is tradition, opened up the floor to council members. Dennis Husch was last to speak. Husch, an outspoken opponent of town funding of a day laborer site, said he took issue with the chosen location for the July 15 meeting, scheduled for the Trinity Presbyterian Church. Husch demanded that the mayor move the meeting to a more appropriate "secular" location. "It's nothing against the church," Husch said. "I just take issue with the Herndon Town Council legislative body meeting in a church. It is simply not a proper venue to hold a public meeting."
On Tuesday, one week after Husch's declaration, the mayor rescinded and announced that the hearing would be moved to the Herndon Middle School. Thoesen, who declined to discuss Husch's comments, said he discussed the issue with each member of council and asked everyone to support the decision to change the location. "I want to focus on the issue and not the venue," the mayor said on Tuesday. "I think its better to save our energy to serve the community and not get caught up in distractions."
IT WAS THOESEN who scheduled the site and it was Thoesen who received the wrath of Husch. For his part, the mayor, a proponent of the interim site, insisted that the July 15 meeting was a public meeting of the council, but it was "not a legislative meeting." In hopes of toning down the rhetoric and passions in the town on the heated-issue of day laborers, Thoesen moved the meeting from town property to church property, after the success of an earlier meeting, sponsored by Reston Interfaith, at the same Dranesville Road church. Reston Interfaith is the applicant in a bid to put an interim day laborer site at the old Herndon Lumber yard on Van Buren Street.
Thoesen said he originally chose the church site because it was "neutral location" and one that was "comfortable and informal, at least for this discussion."
After a series of emotionally draining budget hearings surrounding the day laborer question, vice mayor Carol Bruce said she understood the mayor's rationale for wanting to "ramp down" the debate on the highly controversial issue. On the other hand, Bruce said the "church versus state issue" was one that the Town needed to take seriously. Like Thoesen, the vice mayor proposed keeping the meeting out of council chambers, but she proposed moving the proceedings to a school or similar secular facility.
The mayor said he doubted that the school would be as "comfortable" as the church site, but he signaled his intention to move on from the discussion over the hearing site. "We need to make sure we focus on the issue and not the venue," he said.
Councilman Mike O'Reilly requested that Richard Kaufman, the Town Attorney, look into the delicate church-state issues. By the end of the meeting, the mayor and council agreed to look into alternative sites for next week's meeting. On Tuesday, Kaufman said he had looked into the matter and had "informally" advised council on the issue, though he declined to comment on the substance of his recommendation.
Council member John DeNoyer said he had no problem with Thoesen's decision to hold a Town meeting at a church. "An informational meeting is entirely separate. There is certainly going to be no action taken," DeNoyer said. "It's an info-giving meeting and I don't care where it is held."
DeNoyer's colleague, Connie Hutchinson reserved final judgment on the debate. "If it's a community meeting, it has a different tone," she said. "If it's a town council meeting then I think we need to follow all procedures."
Husch also criticized the mayor's decision to move the meeting's location without formal consent of council. "You were elected mayor, you were not elected king," Husch said. "There have been too many promises made without the counsel of council. This is where I draw the line."
Thoesen responded that he had made the announcement of the meeting and its location in front of council on more than one public occasion, saying he promised to hold a meeting devoted to the day laborer issue in July. "Dennis, congratulations on your point," Thoesen said, before agreeing to explore the issue and ending the Tuesday night work session.