YARMOUTH — An ordinance that would restrict where sex offenders can live in town will either be approved by the Town Council on July 21 or go to a November referendum.
Councilors discussed the proposal, submitted via a citizen petition, during a two-hour public hearing Tuesday night and decided to continue discussions July 21. At that time they can approve the ordinance or decide to send it to voters.
The state doesn’t have laws that govern where sex offenders can live, but allows municipalities to create their own.
The ordinance would prohibit registered sex offenders convicted of Class A, B, or C offenses against children under the age of 14 from living within a 750-foot radius of schools and public areas, such as playgrounds, that are designated for children.
A sex offender who lives within the buffer area prior to the adoption of the ordinance would be exempt, but a convicted sex offender could not move into a buffer area if one is established.
Yarmouth has two registered sex offenders. One, Stefan Shaft, lives in what would be a restricted area.
Shaft, 24, was arrested at his home Feb. 5, 2015, by the Computer Crimes Unit of the Maine State Police for possession of child pornography. He resides on Glen Road, between the high school and the middle and elementary schools, and could remain there if the ordinance is approved.
The other registered sex offender would also be exempt because that person doesn’t live within the area covered by the proposed ordinance.
The residency restriction was proposed to the council late last year by resident Alison Hinson. Councilors discussed the proposal in February, but decided not to move forward because they were split on the issue.
Hinson then wrote and circulated a petition to send the proposed ordinance to referendum. Five hundred signatures were required; petitioners gathered more than 750.
The Town Charter states that a petition-generated proposal must go to a public hearing within 30 days of being certified, and then go to referendum unless the Town Council enacts the proposal.
Like the dozen or so residents at Tuesday’s meeting, the council was polarized by the issue. Some said it won’t significantly improve safety, while others said it will protect children from sexual predators.
Councilor Rob Waeldner said he doesn’t support the ordinance because there’s “no evidence that this works.” He said if sex offenders live near schools, children will probably be safer because there are people there to watch and protect them. If sex offenders are forced to move to more rural parts of town, it puts children who live in those areas at greater risk.
Parts of an email from Superintendent Andrew Dolloff were read aloud, with Dolloff making the same remarks as Waeldner and saying he doesn’t support the ordinance. The School Committee has also decided not to support the proposal.
Councilor David Craig said the ordinance is unnecessary.
“It’s a feel-good exercise,” he said. “It has the appearance of solving a perceived problem.”
Some members of the public agreed. Antoninia Pelletier said the ordinance “doesn’t offer any real protection and gives a false sense of security.”
Steve Thomas, a clinical social worker, said, “if the goal is to protect children, this process will not work.”
Matt Lauzon, who works in Yarmouth, was in favor of the ordinance. Lauzon, a resident of Biddeford and a candidate for state representative in House District 12, shared his story of being sexually assaulted as a minor.
“Don’t let this happen in your town,” Lauzon told councilors.
He said enacting the ordinance would send a message that Yarmouth doesn’t tolerate sex crimes against children.
Councilor Pat Thompson was adamantly in favor of the ordinance.
“I am extremely disappointed in this Town Council,” she said.
Thompson said her fellow councilors were putting the rights of sex offenders above the safety of children.
Councilor Jim MacLeod said because of the personal and emotional nature of the issue, the decision should be left to voters.
“I’m very comfortable with letting the public decide on this issue,” he said.
Councilor Randy Bates agreed, and said regardless of what councilors think of the ordinance, it shouldn’t be their decision.
“It came forward as a citizen initiative, so it makes sense to go to referendum,” he said.