They have names like "Big Mike," "Woodman" and "Fed Up." These three anonymous residents, and others like them, have caught the attention of the Herndon Town Council.
During the roundtable portion of last week's March 4 Town Council work session, Councilman Dennis Husch warned his colleagues that their collective political futures were at stake. The problem, Husch said, is the ongoing problem of day laborers and loiterers at the Elden Street 7-Eleven. Husch cited the spate of messages on a local Internet message board (www.herndonweb.com) where a number of mostly anonymous writers, like 'Big Mike' and 'Fed Up,' have logged on to complain about what they perceive as a lack of action over the lingering issue of what to do with the dozens of workers who gather in the mornings along the corner of Elden Street and Alabama Drive. "We are getting hammered on that site," Husch told his fellow council members.
Many writers chose to share their stories, and their frustrations, the problem of loitering around the 7-Eleven. On March 3, a writer who goes by the name, 'Fed Up,' seemed to sum up the feelings of many at the Web site. "Just this morning, I had to maneuver my vehicle and drive around groups of day laborers loitering in the street and blocking the entrance to both the First Union Bank and the rear entrance to the Amphora," the posting read. "If the town would simply enforce the codes already on the books, the situation could be cleared up rather quickly, in my opinion."
In another typically inflammatory post, "CMF97B" accused the town of sitting on its collective hands, refusing to address the problem. "The police and the Herndon Town council refuse to address the issue because if they do they'll be branded racist, or will be accused of picking on immigrants," the anonymous posting read, "Never mind that they are breaking the law; they (meaning town officials) don't want the headache of a liberal outcry that would befall them from enforcing the law."
<b>HUSCH SAID </b>he wanted to send a message to the town staff that it was time to act. He believes, like many of the writers, that the council has moved too slowly on the issue and that certain members of the staff are hindering progress on the issue. "As long as we have people on the town staff who want to acquiesce to people who are here illegally," he said, "we will continue to have a problem.
"I think the town staff has gotten my message," he said. "I'll feel a lot better when I see some action."
Not all of the online discussion about the problem, and the Town Council's response to it, has been negative. Several postings defend the town's efforts to address the issue of day laborers, while others defend the rights of the day laborers to look for work.
Pat Voltmer, of Herndon, is a regular reader and writer to the Herndon message board and she was not surprised to see the Alabama Drive issue generate increased postings. "There are stupid people everywhere and that board is no exception," Voltmer said. "It's an anonymous way to get their opinions out there without being traced. I bet they aren't the ones that show up at the Town Council meetings or the zoning board hearings. For all I know, they probably aren't even part of the paltry 16 percent of registered voters who voted in the last election. They just like to hear themselves talk."
Eschewing the anonymity provided by the Internet, Voltmer is one of the few posters who uses her real name. "I wouldn't post anything on there that I wouldn't say to someone's face," Voltmer said.
In her posting about Alabama Drive, Voltmer said she was confident that the town was doing its best to address the issue, while being "sensitive and understanding of cultural differences."
Voltmer encouraged her fellow posters to be more proactive in their approach to the problem. "I'm sure they [the council] are more than willing to receive constructive suggestions from anyone that has them," she wrote on March 6.
Another poster, "j.taylor," also urged other posters to do more than complain about the issue on a message board. "If you're concerned about this problem, make it an issue in the 2004 town elections," "j.taylor" wrote on March 3. "Start a coalition of people who will demand the candidates address Alabama Drive and related issues during the campaign."
<b>WHILE MUCH</b> of the message board is typically devoted to more mundane topics like finding rooms for rent or suggestions on picking a good local salon, certain topics, like the day labor controversy, have generated more traffic than others and Husch for one, is alarmed.
Councilman Mike O'Reilly is aware of the site, but he downplayed its significance. O'Reilly said he had no idea how many people actually visited the site or posted messages to the digital bulletin board. "I don't need a Web site to tell me that people are mad and angry. I've had conversations with people about the same topic numerous times," he said.
Councilman Harlon Reece, who has posted on the board in the past, says he tries to stay away from that board, whenever possible, now. "It used to be a very valuable tool for the community, but it's gotten ugly lately," Reece said. "It's funny, I haven't been called an idiot since boot camp. I guess that comes with the job."
Reece added that he didn't think an online message board was a "legitimate" barometer for public opinion in the town. "That's not to say that much of what people say is not significant, however," Reece said. "It's a tough issue, the progress has been slow and it is a problem that is not going to go away."
Voltmer says it shouldn't take a Web site to convince someone that the day labor issue is important for the town's future. "It's an issue not because people are riled up on the message board, but because it is an important issue," she said. "I mean you would have to be pretty out of it not to be aware of the problem."
<b>IN AN INTERVIEW</b> on Monday, Husch said the electronic message board was just one sign of what he characterized as the growing discontent throughout the town about the day labor issue. "The posts on that Web site are revealing the same sentiments as I am seeing and hearing in private communication," Husch said. "People want to see action and I don't blame them."
Mayor Richard Thoesen said he shared "a sense of urgency" about the day laborer question. "It's a very difficult issue," the mayor said on Monday. "It's frustrating that things have moved so slow, but I know that the energy of the council is high and we are continuing to look for a solution."
Like most of the posters on the board, Husch says he, too, has had enough. "I've had a bagful, it's time to take on 7-Eleven and to make sure that the INS knows we are upset," Husch said. "And the businesses that pick the illegal workers up should be put on notice, as well, that they are breaking the law."
Husch said the Herndon Police should be taking down the license plates of every truck that picks up illegal workers and their information should be sent to the Commonwealth's attorney. "It's time to turn up the pressure," Husch said. "If somebody is living here legally than I have no problem with those folks. For those here illegally, I have no use for them, we need to rid them from our community."
O'Reilly joked that the recent spate of bad weather might be to blame for the level of vitriol on the message board. People's "senses may be heightened" after being held captive by the snow, he said, laughing. "People do have the right to express themselves," O'Reilly said. "I like the fact that they are getting involved and interested in their town. Of course, I'm not wild about the negative comments."
Unlike Husch, O'Reilly is not yet worried about the political ramifications of the Web site or the issue. "But, I can tell you, I am just as frustrated as everybody else about the problem," the second-term councilman said. "I am frustrated that it has taken this long."
While he said the addition of an on-site coordinator has helped, O'Reilly, like the mayor, "Big Mike," and "Woodman," admitted that much work was to be done.