Tuesday, March 11, 2014
By Keith Edwards firstname.lastname@example.org
AUGUSTA -- City officials hope a proposed ordinance banning certain sex offenders from living near schools and city parks will make the city a less attractive place to live for such people.
The ordinance, which could be ready for City Council action at their meeting Thursday, would prohibit registered sex offenders who have committed acts against children under the age of 14 from living within 750 feet of public and private schools and any municipal property, such as parks, where children are the primary users.
The rules would not be retroactive -- applying only to sex offenders who move after the ordinance is adopted -- so sex offenders already living in Augusta, even if they are within 750 feet of a school or park, would not have to move.
City Manager William Bridgeo said the proposed residency restrictions could help lessen Augusta's apparent attractiveness to sexual offenders.
Bridgeo said 134 registered sex offenders currently live in Augusta, giving the city the highest percentage of sex offenders in its population of any municipality in Maine. And he said Augusta is second only to Portland in the total number of sex offender residents.
"I have a hunch we would not be here, grappling with this, if our numbers (of sex offenders) were more reflective of the average community in Maine," Bridgeo told city councilors when they debated the issue last week. "Until such time that's the case, we're forced to either live with it, or take some kind of steps, allowed by law, to try to reduce those numbers."
Bridgeo has speculated previously that Augusta gets more than its share of sex offenders in part because when they and other ex-convicts are released from prison, they often have conditions placed on their release requiring them to report to probation officers or for counseling. Those are services that are readily available in Augusta, as the state's capital.
Mayor William Stokes, who is also a Maine deputy attorney general and chief of the state's criminal division, said the city can't ban sex offenders against children from living in Augusta, but it can restrict where they live.
State law passed in 2009 allows municipalities to restrict where certain sex offenders live. The proposed ordinance in Augusta would essentially enact the most strict limits on sex offender residency allowed by the state law.
While they have not yet voted on the ordinance, councilors, in a sign of support, agreed last week that they would all jointly sponsor the ordinance.
Ward 4 Councilor Mark O'Brien expressed concern an unintended consequence of adopting the ordinance could lead to a concentration of sex offenders living in neighborhoods that aren't near schools or parks.
"When you restrict them from one area of the city, that means they'll have to live somewhere else," O'Brien said. "If this is perceived as a problem around schools, it may also be perceived as a problem in someone's neighborhood."
Police Chief Robert Gregoire noted the ordinance won't force sex offenders already living in the city to move, it will just restrict where sex offenders can move to, if it is adopted.
City councilors all received an anonymous email from someone who spoke against the ordinance, stating they felt a homeowner should be able to take anyone he chooses into his home, and warned the ordinance would prevent an elderly parent from having his or her adult relative live with them, if that relative is a sex offender and the parent lives within a restricted area.
"There are consequences to enacting this ordinance, it's not just a feel-good ordinance," Stokes said.
At-large Councilor David Rollins, in response to the example raised by the anonymous emailer, said if a sex offender against children were released from prison and moved in with his mother, it would likely cause great concern in the surrounding neighborhood. And he suggested the overwhelming concern should be for protecting children from "people proven to be child predators," over protecting the rights of sex offenders to live with family members living near schools and parks.
"You may call it 'consequences' but I think it would be irresponsible if we didn't do whatever we can do," Rollins said.
The proposed ordinance would direct the city's planning office to prepare and maintain an official map of the city, showing prohibited locations for restricted sex offenders.
Resident sex offenders who violate the ordinance, after 30 days written notice from the city, could be fined up to $500 a day until they move.
Property owners who rent a residence within the prohibited areas to a restricted sex offender could also face sanctions, according to a draft of the ordinance.
Keith Edwards -- 621-5647