The City Council unanimously passed a child sex offender law through committee Thursday night without any objections. The full council then likewise agreed to advertise the new ordinance before taking a vote to officially adopt later this month.
The new ordinance seeks to create "child safety zones" and specifically target convicted Level 2 and 3 child sex offenders in terms of barring them from such designated areas, which would encompass city schools, libraries, parks and other recreational areas.
Mayor Ted Bettencourt appeared before the council Thursday, explaining his rationale for the local ordinance, and was strongly supported by about 25 parents in the audience.
"There is nothing more important we can do...than to protect our children," he said. "What's going to happen is that other cities and towns are going to pass this and those sex offenders are going to go somewhere."
Bettencourt said he sees the law as a proactive effort to protect the community and its children.
Three parents spoke in support of the law, in addition to School Committee member Brandi Carpenter, who informed councilors of the committee's support as well.
"We don't take a false sense of security in this," Carpenter said, speaking as a parent of young children. "But it is a step in the right direction."
"If you guys don't do this, it's going to be terrible for our kids; you need to protect our kids," said Dave Cummings. He noted his own involvement in youth sports and that he witnessed another incident at a city park, following the initial incident this summer that led to Bettencourt taking action.
Jim Guiry likewise said his children play youth sports and that the law gives some sense of security back to parents.
"They [sex offenders] lost their rights to hang around parks and schools," he said.
Bettencourt said there are now more than 40 communities in Massachusetts that have some form of local sex offender laws in place, and his proposal is modeled after the law in New Bedford. That city's ordinance has been in place since 2008 and is not currently facing a legal challenge by the American Civil Liberties Union, although it was challenged at one point, but that suit was eventually dismissed.
The New Bedford law was actually instigated by a case of child rape by a registered sex offender in a public library in January 2008. In response, New Bedford city councilors passed an ordinance barring the most serious sex offenders from newly designated “child safety zones.”
Locally, the city of Lynn also has an ordinance in place, which is being challenged in court on constitutional grounds.
Bettencourt says he isn't worried about whether the ACLU will file suit or not and is confident the proposed ordinance is on sound legal and constitutional footing.
He said that's why it's taken a few months to draft the ordinance. "I want to get this on the books right away, but I want to make sure it's a strong ordinance."
"This is clearly well thought out and well written," said Ward 6 Councilor Barry Sinewitz. "We have to do what we have to do to keep our community safe."
He urged his colleagues to not be fearful of legal challenges to the law in considering whether to approve it. And it turned out that each councilor apparently shared those sentiments, as they all voted to move forward with the law.
Councilor Dave Gravel asked if signs could be posted at "child safety zones" to clearly identify those areas to the public and help prevent any possible confusion on whether a sex offender was found in violation of the ordinance.
Bettencourt said he liked that idea and would consider installing some signs.
Bettencourt first revealed this summer that he was working on an ordinance in the wake of parents notifying him of an incident at Lt. Ross Park in which two sex offenders had shown up there multiple times to collect cans while youth sports games were going on.
The parents said that on the last instance, the men exchanged words with the parents, and police had been called just as many times, but told the concerned parents there was nothing they could do since the men were not in violation of any laws.
The parents, and subsequently Bettencourt, realized there were no state or local laws in place to prohibit sex offenders from gathering in public places.
Jessica O'Hara, one of the parents who initially contacted Bettencourt, told councilors Thursday that the park "is a home away from home for many of us."
She said she and another mother followed the two men upon seeing them for the third time at the park to ensure they did leave after gathering cans. At that point, the "men yelled comments" at the parents, O'Hara said. She later realized both were Level 3 sex offenders.
"You hear people say it [the law] creates a false sense of security, but [the sex offenders] will get fined," O'Hara said.
Bettencourt said after the meeting that he purposefully steered clear of trying to dictate where child sex offenders could live in Peabody or specific proximity to child safety zones, which is what Lynn is being challenged on now.
If those provisions were deemed constitutional by a judge, Bettencourt said, he would seek to add them as well.
He told councilors that in turn if an appeal of Peabody's ordinance is taken and a judge rules against the constitutionality of certain measures, the city will just have to tweak the law to comply.
Some minor tweaking may be done regardless prior to the ordinance coming up for a vote to adopt likely at the council's Oct. 25 session.
Councilor Anne Manning-Martin asked if more specific language could be used to clarify "religious education programs," from which sex offenders were banned, only included those involving children and which were not part of regular worship or Mass services.