By Alan Burke
---- — The Peabody City Council has passed unanimously an ordinance forbidding sex offenders from areas including parks, playgrounds, recreation centers, beaches, pools, gyms, sports fields and sports facilities.
The action, a final vote on the bylaw, was taken in what seemed record time last night, with nary a word of opposition.
Speaking in favor of the ordinance, which he originated, Mayor Ted Bettencourt recalled a “troubling” incident last summer where parents at Cy Tenney Park were alarmed to find two Level 3 sex offenders at the facility collecting bottles and cans. They were further stunned to learn after calling police that there was no law or bylaw to prohibit the offenders from the park or from any areas where children gather.
It stunned others, as well, and the School Committee, where the mayor is chairman, took the first vote calling for an ordinance to keep such people away from children.
“I’ve received many calls from parents,” Bettencourt said. “And many calls from grandparents.” In keeping children safe, he stressed, “the proposed ordinance is an important tool. ... There’s nothing more important that we can take up.”
The ordinance is based on one passed previously in New Bedford, “where it has worked well,” the mayor said. It applies to those who have committed specific crimes, including assaults on children. While the state has applied no such restrictions, Bettencourt noted that 40 cities and towns have done it on their own.
Lynn also has a similar ordinance.
“I just want to compliment you for putting this before us,” council President Jim Liacos said. “I was only surprised that we didn’t already have something in place.”
A number of parents and officials looked on as the vote was taken, including school board members Dave McGeney, Ed Charest and Tom Rossignol.
“The unanimous vote speaks for itself,” McGeney said afterward. “I’ve heard nothing but support for this.” He estimated that it has widespread approval across the city. “I go with what Jim Liacos said. I think everyone was surprised that we had nothing like this on the books before.”
“I think it was the right thing for our city,” Bettencourt said following the vote. “The City Council did right by the citizens.”
Earlier, some had expressed fears that the law would entangle the city in lawsuits and ultimately be overturned. In some cases, civil rights advocates have worried that with so many restricted areas, some offenders might find themselves virtually unable to move about. Others believe that offenders, having served time for their crimes, should not be restricted.
Anticipating objections, the city took several weeks before submitting an ordinance. It includes language, for example, that does not limit the offender’s ability to exercise a First Amendment right to attend church or synagogue. Additionally, offenders cannot be prohibited from contact with their own children.
Those who violate the law would face fines, and their parole or probation officers would be notified.