Aldermen approve sex offender zoning
By Brent Curtis
Herald Staff | August 05,2008
The city aldermen approved a new ordinance Monday that will make most of the city off-limits for convicted child sex offenders to live in.
The unanimous vote was held after a trio of sexual assault victims spoke against the measure and two other people spoke in favor of the ordinance that will impose 1,000-foot buffer zones around every school, park and day-care center in the city.
But it was perhaps the city residents not in the room who convinced the aldermen that supporting the residency restrictions was the right thing to do.
"Why are there no probation and parole officers or police or counselors or anyone else in here saying we're opening a hornet's nest here?" Alderman Henry Heck said after listening to comments both for and against from the five residents who spoke. "We may not have had a lot of meetings or done a lot of research, but my phone hasn't been ringing off the hook from people calling to say you're getting into a hornet's nest."
Heck's comments were partly a response to critical remarks from the three victims who characterized the board's and Mayor Christopher Louras' embrace of the ordinance as uninformed fear-mongering undertaken for the purpose of political gain.
Heck wasn't the only alderman who denied those accusations.
While the ordinance passed quickly and with little research into the effectiveness of residency ordinances in other communities, several aldermen said they had no political stake in the ordinance's passage and were only trying to make a small step toward addressing a large problem that will ultimately require action at the state level.
Whether the silent majority Heck referred to actually supports the ordinance will now be put to the test. The new ordinance goes into effect in 20 days, but there is a 45-day window in which those opposed to the new law can gather the required 5 percent of registered voter signatures needed to put the ordinance in front of the voters.
Adopted almost verbatim from an ordinance that passed recently in Barre, the so-called "Child Safety Ordinance" was proposed by Louras as a starting point for a similar law in Rutland, but was approved almost unchanged by the aldermen.
There were no naysayers at the board meeting where the mayor introduced the ordinance or at the committee meeting where the aldermen discussed it.
But at the meeting on Monday, Richard and Cris Brown, who said their children were the victims of sexual predators 35 years ago, told the aldermen they needed to do more homework on the ordinance they said would increase the likelihood of sexual offenses, not lower them.
"Expert after expert has offered information, advice and editorials regarding how sexual offenders work, why this ordinance is not a good idea, why it could back to cause the city a great deal of money and in effect create a larger problem and put more children at risk," Cris Brown said.
The Browns said rather than pass a residency ordinance, the board should develop ways to educate parents and children about how sex offenders operate to prevent sexual abuse and uncover predators before they offend.
Ruthellen Weston began her remarks by saying she wanted to prevent children from enduring the type of abuse she did at an early age.
"If I can prevent even one child from having to experience what I did, I have to speak up," she said.
While she said it was "wonderful" that the city was trying to do something to protect children, she referred to national studies that have shown residency laws destabilize sex offenders, drive them underground and increase the likelihood of future offenses.
"Please, please I beg you to vote against this law and channel your energies into something that will really protect children. This is not the answer," Weston concluded.
But Anissa Delauri, a child-care provider in Rutland, and 14-year-old Emily Anderson, who is an intern at Delauri's day-care center, said the ordinance would be better than what exists in Rutland now and had the chance to protect children.
"This is a first step," Delauri said. "But it shouldn't be the last. We need parent education and child education … there's a lot of education that needs to be done."
Anderson, who doesn't live in the city, but said she has friends with children in Rutland, asked the board to do whatever they could to protect them.
"I don't want something to happen to them," she said. "If this protects a few kids or even one, then it's worth it."
Contact Brent Curtis at email@example.com.