At a time when the future of Herndon has yet to be determined and local government is at a crossroads on a range of local issues with national implications, 11 men and two women vying to represent Herndon residents came together in the town's public chamber beneath Lynn Street last Wednesday night.
In front of an audience of about 50 men and women, and an unknown number tuning in at home to the live broadcast on Herndon Cable Television (HCTV), the candidates stated their opinions on town issues at the forum sponsored by the Herndon Dulles Chamber of Commerce.
Despite the seriousness of the event, there was some playful ribbing among candidates and laughter from the crowd.
The candidates shared the same objective, as articulated by council candidate Charlie Waddell, to make "Herndon the best it could be."
Town residents in attendance took notes as the candidates answered questions; others reacted emotionally by uttering sighs and groans, by shaking their heads and through loud applause.
The nine Town Council candidates took their turn first, fielding questions from a panel of representatives from the local press corps, made up of Steve Cahill, executive editor of the Times Community Newspapers; Christopher L. Moore, editor and publisher of the Herndon Observer, and Connection Newspapers editor-in-chief Steven Mauren.
Asked about the day labor site, candidates differed on whether the site successfully solved a local problem or whether it constituted a breach of responsibility to Herndon taxpayers.
"We are the poster child for the entire day labor issue in this country," Town Council member Steven Mitchell said of the debate that has raged in Herndon and the country over the site in recent months. "Go to any news clip on day labor and there we are."
Questions concerning taxes and the town's capital improvements budget drew the widest range of responses.
Diversifying of the tax base and limiting public spending in Herndon and how these issues could relate to relief of steadily rising residential real estate taxes took center stage, with candidates at one point being asked by a resident whether or not they would tie inflation to the amount of budgeted public spending.
Although answers were mixed, the majority appeared hesitant to put a limit on how much the town could spend.
The dangers of residential overcrowding and the battle against it appeared to draw the most emotion.
After Town Council candidate Bill Tirrell drew large applause for a "full court press against the unsafe and unsanitary conditions" that overcrowding has caused, candidates, much to the excitement of those in attendance, reiterated this necessity. Tirrell, a retired Naval officer, pledged his support for an increase in the number of inspectors and increased strategic planning, to go after those who would allow for overcrowding in Herndon.
MAYORAL CANDIDATE Steven DeBenedittis, who grew up in Herndon, said that he joined the race for mayor because he wants to see the safety and security of the Herndon he remembers as a child restored.
A local health club operator, DeBenedittis highlighted the increases in real estate taxes in the last three years as a major motivating factor in his decision to make a bid for the office of Herndon mayor. Eliminating excess taxes to "help Herndon's residents have more of their money," drew applause.
Herndon Mayor Michael O'Reilly assured residents that progress was being made as he outlined the accomplishments of the town government over his first two years as head of local government, citing more inspectors combating overcrowding and the establishment of the day labor site as some of the town's greatest triumphs.
O'Reilly, a local attorney, supported his decision on the day labor site and pointed to the absence of day laborers in the 7-Eleven parking lot. He underlined the town's efforts to keep taxes to a minimum and the great strides the town has made in the past two years to reduce gang activity in Herndon.
EMPHASIZING OPENNESS and understanding cultural identities as a way of building bridges between the different ethnic communities within Herndon brought applause for Town Council candidate Jorge Rochac. Born in El Salvador, Rochac highlighted his experience riding along with local police and being a volunteer Spanish-language translator and teacher for local police officers as evidence of his commitment to the town and bridging the gap between its foreign- and national-born citizens.
Town Council member Carol Bruce's appeal to "teach our children about the environment" through completion of the Runnymede Nature Center project drew supportive ovation. Bruce, who served as the first woman mayor of Herndon in 20002 , is the vice president of Friends of Runnymede Park. Her comments about the importance of local environmental education come at a time in which debate over global warming is a national issue.
Town Council member Dennis Husch was greeted with a round of applause for his promise to "follow the law — and the oath" that he took to the town to assure that the day labor site is managed properly. Husch, along with Town Council member Ann Null — who is not running for re-election — were the only council members to oppose the establishment of the day labor site last year.
J. Harlon Reece said the Town of Herndon is a model of local governance. A third-term Town Council member, former Marine and 17-year Herndon resident, Reece also represents the town of Herndon on the Board of Directors of the Dulles Area Transportation Association and on the Advisory Board for the Dulles Corridor Rail Association — a concerted effort to expand the Metrorail system to Herndon.
Town Council candidate David Kirby called for a more efficient budget management and a limit to town spending. A Vietnam veteran and commander of American Legion Post 184, Kirby stressed that although he is for a leaner budget, he will never limit funding when it comes to issues of the safety and protection of Herndon citizens from crime and the consequences of residential overcrowding.
Town Council candidate Connie Hutchison's appeal for residents to help her preserve Herndon's community spirit and rein in rising tax bills caught the audible attention of the attendees. Hutchison supports a day labor site on the condition that those looking to use the service to find work or hire workers hold proper legal identification.
Pride in the community of Herndon was the most recognizable aspect of the televised forum. "The first amendment [guaranteeing free speech] is alive and well here in Herndon," Waddell said.