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Talking Out Differences

Trying to tone down the debate, town forces audience to talk through day laborer issue.

Despite some early fireworks, the public meeting on the establishment of a temporary day laborer hiring site eventually lived up to its host's wishes for a more intimate and civil dialogue on an issue that threatens to divide the town.

A few opponents of the town's plan objected to the format of the meeting which was conducted in part, in small group sessions, moderated by representatives from the Northern Virginia Mediation Services, where random supporters and opponents of a regulated hiring site could discuss the issues in a less formal setting.

"There's a lot of emotion to share, let's try and avoid emotion," Mayor Richard Thoesen said after some members of the audience expressed outrage at the non-traditional format of the meeting and walked out of the Herndon Middle School auditorium on Tuesday night. "The Town Council will have a public hearing, but first, let's all try and relax."

Once in small 10 to 12 person groups, mediators tried, to varying degrees, to open a dialogue for people on all sides of the spectrum.

After witnessing numerous tension-filled public budget hearings on the issue, at least one audience member, Jorge Rochac, said he was impressed with the calm attitude of proponents and opponents, alike. The meeting was a step in the right direction, Rochac said.

"By talking things out, we perceive other things and we understand other things and we see that maybe we are not 100 percent right. These are smart people, but they are afraid of what they do not understand. I think that's normal and if we talk it out, we will find a way out."

IN THE GROUP moderated by Great Falls resident Bud Hines, ideas about issues ranging from questions of legality to traffic concerns were addressed politely and quietly, a contrast to Town Council and town Planning Commission meetings earlier this year.

Oak Street resident Betty Valley, a frequent speaker at previous Town Council hearings and an outspoken opponent of the current plan, said she doubted many of the day laborers were legal residents. "If they were legal, they'd all have jobs," she said.

Sitting to Valley's right, Sal Palatucci did not attack her statement, instead he asked a question: "Would you feel different if all the people at the 7-Eleven were legal?"

In almost hushed tones, Valley responded. "If they have a right to be in this country, then they have a right to have a job."

Herndon resident Susy Nixon agreed with Palatucci that the question of "legality" was overblown. For Nixon, the important issue was the day laborers adhering to a code of conduct for behavior on the site and on the way to the site, as specified in Reston Interfaith's conditional use permit application. Nixon applauded the town's efforts, including last week's discussion, to solve the issue of what to do with day laborers at the Elden Street 7-Eleven. "I think the town is trying to be thoughtful and more civil. That's good," Nixon said.

"WHEN THE MEETING started there was a lady [Sharon Hamann] who shot up and raised all kinds of Hell," said Rochac, a native of El Salvador, said. "Well, I was in a group with her and by the time we came back out, I had convinced her of a lot of things and she had convinced me of a lot of things."

Hamann said, like Rochac, she found the meeting beneficial. "After we all settled down, I think it was good," she said. "I came away with a pretty good feeling, but I don't think the Town Council will not waver, one bit."

Just because Hamann ended up enjoying the meeting, doesn't mean she changed her mind. Hamman said she supports a hiring site at the police station, not in her backyard. "If I have to, I will file a lawsuit against the town to keep this site away," she said. "I shouldn't have to live in fear."

Rochac said he doesn't blame people, even the most ardent opponents of the town's proposal, for being scared and worried about changes in modern day Herndon. It's understandable, he said. "I think change is worrisome to people if you are not used to it, but eventually they get used to it," Rochac said. "When a lot of people go out at night and see a barking dog, they say, 'boy, this monster is going to eat me up,' but if you get a little closer it might just be a puppy that was scared and it really is a nice and friendly little dog."

Ruth Tatlock has lived in the town for 25 years and during the break-out session, she said it was important to address "the fear factor" inherent with the changing face of Herndon. "This is something I don't know or feel, but it is out there. That woman was screaming frantically so I know it's real," Tatlock said. "No doubt about it, change is difficult but I think we should figure out how to reduce fear."

For Lynn Schumaker, who was sitting in the same discussion group, the "fear factor is real." Schumaker said she favors a formal site, but she told the group that after 25 years in Herndon, she now has locked her doors because of a recent attempted break-in. "What if the fear is valid?"