PORTLAND — An ordinance prohibiting sex offenders from living near schools and other public places frequented by children was shot down in committee this week, but the issue may not be dead.
Councilor Dory Waxman, who sponsored the ordinance, said the issue of sex offenders living next to schools, parks and playground is too important to push aside, even though a proposed ordinance limiting where they can live was rejected on June 8 by the Public Safety Committee.
Waxman doesn’t sit on the committee, but indicated she might bring the issue to the City Council anyway.
“The substance of this conversation isn’t going away just because the Public Safety Committee chose not to move it (with or without a recommendation) to the full City Council,” Waxman said in an e-mail. “This issue has been in the political arena off and on for too many years. We needed to have this discussion to try and find a solution that would help residents to understand instead of living in fear.”
Waxman was sponsoring an ordinance sought by Portland Police since January to ban high-risk sex offenders from living within 750 feet of schools and public property popular with children under the age of 14, including recreation facilities, playgrounds and pools.
Although the Public Safety Committee, comprised of three councilors, voted down the proposal by a 2-1 margin on Tuesday, any councilor could still bring the ordinance forward to the full council with a negative recommendation.
Councilor Kevin Donoghue, who serves on the committee, said he joined Councilor Dan Skolnik in voting against the ordinance, because he failed to see a correlation between housing limits and children’s safety.
“I remain unconvinced that limiting housing options for registered sex offenders does anything at all to promote public safety,” he said. “It is not our task to mete out additional punishment.”
Councilor John Coyne was the only committee member to support the residency restrictions. Coyne was encouraged by a compromise that would have reduced the residency prohibition to 250 feet from 750 feet, which would have included most – if not all – of the peninsula.
Sex offenders already living within those limits would have been grandfathered, Coyne said.
“I was disappointed,” he said. “I felt the compromise from the original document was something that would have satisfied everyone.”
The ordinance would have only applied to new sex offenders deemed high-risk by police. That designation would be assigned by the Police Department’s sex offender detective through a ranking system outlined in the proposed ordinance.
High-risk offenders are those who knew their victim, had multiple victims, were violent or threatened violence, used drugs or alcohol and/or had previous violations.
Police estimate the ordinance would have affected 27 sex offenders — nearly half of the total number of sex offenders on Portland’s 62-person registry.
Confident that police do an excellent job tracking sex offenders, Coyne said the ordinance would have given police more leverage over high risk offenders.
Police Chief James Craig did not return a phone call or e-mail seeking comment.
The measure was not only opposed by most committee members, but also landlords and the Maine Civil Liberties Union.
Alysia Melnick, of the MCLU, testified that the ordinance could create a false sense of security, while encouraging more offenders to avoid registering. Sexual abuse, she said, is a crime of relationship, not geography.
Charleton Winslow, a member of the Southern Maine Landlords Association, expressed his concerns in May about a provision that would have required landlords to evict high risk sex offenders.
Winslow, who acknowledged the importance of protecting children, said this week he was not convinced landlords would have the legal footing necessary to carry out evictions in court.
“I’ve been doing evictions for a long time,” said Winslow, who owns about 20 units in Portland, about 80 percent of which would have been affected. “I don’t see in Maine Law that I would have cause. I felt the grounds were shaky.”
Winslow said he was pleasantly surprised the committee voted down the rules.
Coyne said he hasn’t had a chance to speak with Waxman about possibly bring the ordinance forward to the full council, but plans to soon.
“I don’t have a problem supporting it again,” Coyne said.
Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or firstname.lastname@example.org