YARMOUTH — Voters in November will decide whether to enact an ordinance that would restrict where sex offenders can live.
The Town Council on July 21 unanimously approved sending the proposal to a Nov. 8 general election referendum. The councilors’ only other option was to approve the ordinance; they couldn’t vote it down because the issue was submitted via a citizens petition.
The state doesn’t have laws that govern where sex offenders can live, but allows municipalities to create their own.
Despite the unanimous decision, councilors were split on the issue, as they have been over the past several months.
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 places frequented by children. Included would be schools and playgrounds.
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 three 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 lives 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 offenders would also be exempt because they don’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.
Councilors were still divided on the issue when they discussed the petition July 12. At the July 21 meeting no one’s stance had changed.
“My support will always be with the children of Yarmouth,” Councilor Pat Thompson said. “There’s no question.”
Thompson said she is in favor of the ordinance and hopes residents enact it. She said whether it’s enacted or not, families need to be further educated about protecting children.
Councilor Rob Waeldner agreed with Thompson on the education aspect of the issue, but little else.
“Certainly the protection of our children is very important, and keeping them safe is of the utmost importance,” Waeldner said. “But in my view, there’s no data here that suggests residency restrictions achieve their intended result, to reduce offences against children.”
Councilors Andy Kittredge and Randy Bates agreed.
“Looking at this analytically with the empirical evidence we have, I believe this ordinance would be ineffective, unnecessary, and there’s no evidence to suggest that it would protect children,” Bates said.
Police Chief Michael Morrill said he’s unsure if the ordinance would protect children, but as someone who is tasked with acting in the best interest of residents, he said residents should be making the decision.
Councilor Jim MacLeod said he supports the ordinance, and he is “comfortable with it being in the hands of residents.”
Other councilors, including David Craig, said residents are buying into fear and it’s not the right mindset to have when considering the ordinance.
“I believe that too much of our politics these days is dominated by fear,” Craig said. “I hope that we cannot be driven by fear, but instead let’s be guided by the facts.”
Councilor Tamson Bickford-Hamrock said understanding the facts has been difficult not only for residents, but for councilors as well. “It’s difficult to go to referendum with so much confusion around this issue,” she said.
Bickford-Hamrock said she thinks there should some sort of “process” or information session before the November election so residents fully understand the ordinance and the impact it would have before they vote.