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Votes

Town’s Future Hinges on Immigration Issues

Town Council hopefuls debate which direction to take.

Two Herndon mayoral candidates and nine Town Council hopefuls running in the May 2 elections debated how to better enforce an overcrowding ordinance Monday at a forum dominated by immigration-related issues, many of which dovetail with a contentious national debate.

Mayor Michael L. O'Reilly, who touted his experience as mayor and his four years on Town Council, said Herndon’s overcrowding ordinance has been a model for other jurisdictions, including Loudoun County.

“I think we’re winning [the fight against overcrowding]. We’ve made it known that overcrowding is not acceptable in our town,” said O’Reilly at the forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters and taped at Cox Communications headquarters. Further gains, he said, will take time.

His challenger, Steve DeBenedittis, a health club manager and personal trainer, agreed that the ordinance is sound, but claimed that residents are frustrated. “We need to sit down and analyze the entire [complaint] process,” said DeBenedittis, adding that the town needs to do a better job of providing feedback to residents.

THE COUNCIL’S 5-2 vote last summer to approve a publicly funded day laborer site, which has been operational since last December, seemed to pervade debate questions and answers. Four of the five incumbents — O'Reilly and council members Carol A. Bruce, Steven D. Mitchell and J. Harlon Reece — voted to approve the site and are running for reelection. Council member Dennis D. Husch, also running for reelection, voted against the site.

DeBenedittis and other challengers who oppose the site are hoping this year’s election will act as a referendum of incumbents who approved the site.

O’Reilly, who acknowledges that some residents will never approve of the site, said it has served its purpose, which was to stop day laborers from gathering at the 7-Eleven and disrupting town businesses. “We’ve solved that problem at the intersection of Elden [Street] and Alabama [Drive],” he said. Broader immigration problems, he said, must be handled collaboratively at the state and federal level.

TOWN COUNCIL hopefuls, fielding questions from three local newspapers and the public during the two-hour debate, also took up immigration issues stemming from the Herndon Official Workers Center.

“This is a very pivotal time in history,” said Charlie Waddell, a challenger for Town Council seeking one of the six seats. Waddell, a systems engineer, opposes the day laborer site and criticized incumbents who supported it, arguing they have done a poor job of listening to citizens.

Other challengers for Town Council, including David “Dave” Kirby and William B. Tirrell, agree. “I believe there is a silent majority in Herndon that is upset and worried about the direction of Herndon,” said Kirby.

Tirrell is confounded by what the day laborer site has achieved. “It makes no sense to me to create a day laborer site to clear out a parking lot, which is essentially what occurred,” said Tirrell.

Incumbents O’Reilly, Bruce, Mitchell and Reece argued that they have shown leadership during difficult times.

“We’ve faced challenging and divisive issues,” said Mitchell, referring to the national spotlight that has been directed on Herndon.

“The role of the mayor is to listen and to do, and that’s what I did with the day laborer site,” said O’Reilly.

Bruce, who has 15 years experience on the Town Council, focused her attention on achievements, offering a list of successes. “We have a great deal to be proud of and it hasn’t happened by accident,” said Bruce.

WHILE MOST candidates tiptoed around the growth of the Latino community in the town of 23,000, the sensitivity of the issue detonated when a question from the audience assumed the town was attracting low-income workers.

In rare instance of accord, candidates generally agreed that the assumption was inaccurate. “We’re not attracting low-income workers. We have low-income workers,” said O’Reilly, whose answer was echoed by nearly every other candidate.

Town Council challenger Connie Haines Hutchinson, who served previous terms on the council, suggested nonetheless that the root causes of overcrowding ought to be examined further.

Council candidate Jorge Rochac approves of the council’s decision to set up a day laborer site and the town’s overcrowding ordinance. “Although we’re experiencing growing pains, we’re handling them well,” said Rochac. “I shall always work to unite our community.” He added that education will be integral to any future policy pursuits. “We must strive to educate each other and find solutions,” he said.

Candidates also discussed the proposed Nature House, taxes and development issues. The forum can be seen on demand on Cox cable.