Sex offender ordinance considered (Sept. 4, 2008)

Forum will let residents air opinions

Sept. 4, 2008
By Greg Elias
Observer staff

Williston will become the latest Vermont community to debate an ordinance prohibiting sex offenders from living near places where children gather.

Selectboard member Chris Roy raised the emotionally and politically charged subject during a recent meeting.

Roy wanted to know how fellow board members would feel about establishing a buffer zone around areas such as schools and childcare centers where those convicted of sex crimes could not reside. Town Manager Rick McGuire suggested a public forum to further explore the issue.

Roy and other town officials are staying carefully neutral on the subject. The issue of how best to deal with sex offenders has generated a statewide debate in the wake of the slaying of 12-year-old Brooke Bennett this summer.

“I suspect some folks will be very much for (an ordinance) and some folks will be very much against it,” Roy said. “I’m in the middle somewhere.”

Selectboard Chairman Terry Macaig said he doubts the effectiveness of residency restrictions but is keeping an open mind.

“I’m very concerned that they just give people a false sense of security,” he said.

Still, Macaig, who is seeking election to the Vermont House of Representatives, said he would reserve judgment until hearing from residents. If the community wants such an ordinance, Macaig said he would support it.

Barre and Rutland recently approved residency restrictions for sex offenders. Both towns ban sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of schools and playgrounds. Burlington is considering a similar ordinance.

The ordinances were enacted amid widespread revulsion over Bennett’s slaying.

The girl disappeared on June 25 from Randolph and was found a week later in a shallow grave on property owned by her uncle, Michael Jacques, a convicted sex offender. Jacques, 42, has been charged with kidnapping. Other charges may be filed.

The slaying has provoked heated political discussion about how sex offenses are handled. Gov. Jim Douglas has proposed stricter laws, including a 25-year mandatory minimum sentence for certain sex crimes. The Senate Judiciary Committee held hearings on the topic last week.

The topic has become a central issue in the governor’s race. Douglas has criticized his Democratic opponent, House speaker Gaye Symington, for failing to support increased penalties.

But Roy, who serves as the local chairman for the Vermont Republican Party and attended the party’s national convention, said his proposal does not have a political angle. He specifically denied that it was designed to help local Republicans vying for Williston’s two seats in the Vermont House. He said he became interested in the issue after seeing his hometown of Barre enact its sex offender ordinance.

Macaig and incumbent Jim McCullough, both Democrats, are running. Also on the ballot are Republicans Shelley Palmer, who ran unsuccessfully for the House in 2004, and Brennan Duffy, who is seeking his first elected office.

A controversy over sex criminals might favor the Republicans, who are underdogs for seats that have been held by Democrats since 2002.

Roy said he didn’t care if the forum was held before or after the election. Macaig declined to speculate on his fellow board member’s motives.

Whether residency restrictions for sex offenders actually protect children is debatable. Some experts believe such ordinances are based on an outdated “stranger danger” approach to sex crimes, while studies show that most child abuse is in fact perpetrated by family members or others known to the victim.

The state’s online sex offender registry lists just one person living in Williston. The site, however, includes only those the state classifies as high-risk offenders.

Sgt. Bart Chamberlain, a veteran detective with the Williston Police Department, said there are other sex offenders in Williston but he did not know exactly how many. He noted that a state agency, not local police, is responsible for tracking them.

Chamberlain said he wasn’t knowledgeable enough about the issue to form an opinion about residency restrictions. But he thought it was a worthy topic for public discussion.

McGuire said it could take two months to organize the forum because of the difficulty of coordinating schedules among the diverse panel of experts he will invite.

McGuire said the timing — either before or after the Nov. 4 election — is beside the point. He’s simply trying to organize the event.

Roy said the forum will help him make up his mind based on facts. He acknowledged, however, that child abuse is an emotional issue.

“On a visceral level, there’s nothing more abhorrent than this sort of crime,” he said.