Town schedules November forum on child safety (Sept. 18, 2008)

Sex offender ordinance among the topics

Sept. 18, 2008
By Greg Elias
Observer staff

A forum on child safety that will include talk of an ordinance limiting where sex offenders can live will be held in November.  

The forum is scheduled for Monday, Nov. 13 at Williston Central School. It begins at 7 p.m.

Town Manager Rick McGuire had as of last week signed up two nonprofit organizations, Prevent Child Abuse Vermont and KidSafe Collaborative Inc. McGuire said he is recruiting others to participate in the forum’s panel discussion.

The forum grew out of a proposal by Selectboard member Chris Roy to consider an ordinance restricting where sex offenders can live. Such ordinances typically establish buffer zones around schools and other places children gather.

At least two Vermont municipalities recently approved residency restrictions on sex offenders, while other towns have discussed the issue in the wake of the June slaying of 12-year-old Brooke Bennett.

McGuire said he broadened the focus to ensure a wide-ranging discussion that includes several perspectives. Only debating a sex offender ordinance, he said, would limit the forum.

“If you focus on one solution right from the start, you don’t know if it’s the right solution,” McGuire said.

The forum will have a panel featuring representatives from perhaps four organizations. A set of predetermined questions will be posed to the panel, and then members of the general public will get to ask their own questions.

Roy said the broader focus is OK as long as discussion of a sex offender ordinance “is not lost in the shuffle.”

Sex offenses became an emotional and political issue in Vermont after Bennett disappeared in June and was found a week later in a shallow grave. Her uncle, Michael Jacques, a convicted sex offender, has been charged with kidnapping in connection with the case. Prosecutors have indicated that other charges may be filed.

State officials have since proposed stricter laws dealing with sex offenders. Gov. Jim Douglas wants legislators to require a 25-year mandatory minimum sentence for certain sex crimes involving children. The Senate Judiciary Committee considered that measure and others during hearings in recent weeks.

Two Vermont cities, Rutland and Barre, recently enacted ordinances that restrict where sex offenders can live. The ordinances bar offenders from living within 1,000 feet of schools, recreation facilities and other places frequented by children.

Critics, including some victim advocates, assert that limiting where sex offenders can live only drives them underground and prevents their reintegration into society. Experts say such measures are based on the false premise that offenders are strangers when studies show they are in most cases known to the victim.

Some have accused Douglas and others seeking statewide office of using the issue to hammer their opponents for being soft on crime.

But McGuire and Roy denied that political considerations influenced the forum’s timing and topics.

McGuire said the forum, which will be held the week after the Nov. 4 election, was scheduled based on availability of space at the school. He said he did not deliberately try to hold it after the election.

“You keep trying to draw a connection, but for me there is no connection,” he told the Observer.

Roy, who is the local chairman for the state Republican Party, said politics played no role in his proposal. Two Republicans are challenging a pair of Democrats for Williston’s two seats in the Vermont House in the November election. One of the Democrats is Terry Macaig, chairman of the Selectboard.

Roy said passage of the ordinance in Barre, his hometown, led him to wonder if Williston should enact similar restrictions on where sex offenders live.

He said it is better that the forum is held after the election because it will eliminate politics and allow residents to focus exclusively on what will best ensure children’s safety.

“Believe it or not, this was never intended to be a political maneuver at all,” he said.