Under the watchful eyes of more than two dozen anxious parents, Peabody Mayor Ted Bettencourt last night introduced a new ordinance designed to restrict dangerous sex offenders from areas likely to draw children.
It drew quick approval from the City Council, which voted unanimously to advertise a public hearing, the first step to formally adopting the measure.
Yet, even while members stressed the importance of quick action to protect children, there was concern over the survival of any law in court. Stressing an eagerness to pass the ordinance, Councilor Anne Manning-Martin noted, “If we pass it — we have to make it stick.”
Bettencourt said he proposed the restriction after hearing of a “disturbing” incident last June at a city park.
Resident Jessica O’Hara gave an account, telling how a number of parents noticed two men, Level 3 sex offenders, looking for bottles and cans while children played nearby.
“We followed them at a safe distance,” she said, “to make sure the two men left alone. ... At that point, they turned and yelled a few comments.”
A call to police did little to relieve the parents.
“The police said there was nothing they could do,” O’Hara said. She went home and began investigating, learning that Level 3 sex offenders are considered the most dangerous.
She and others began reaching out to city officials. The mayor and the school board were contacted.
Bettencourt said he was surprised to learn that Massachusetts has no laws restricting the activities of dangerous sex offenders, though two dozen states have enacted measures barring them from “child safety zones.” About 40 cities and towns in the commonwealth have passed restrictions on their own.
The ordinance proposed last night, the mayor said, is based on one adopted in New Bedford in 2008. Lynn has also voted for child safety zones.
Both those bylaws have been challenged in court with questions raised concerning the constitutional rights of the offenders and sheer practicality. Consequently, and by way of example, the mayor’s ordinance is careful not to 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.
The mayor explained that it has taken these many months to prepare the ordinance precisely out of the need to anticipate such objections. “I do think this is a strong ordinance that will ultimately pass a legal challenge. ... We can and must ... better equip our law enforcement personnel to protect our children.”
“It’s a good idea,” Councilor Arthur Athas said.
“I want to get this on the books right away,” said Councilor Tom Gould, who added that he wanted to get it right.
“We’ve got to give the police as many tools as possible,” Councilor Dave Gravel said.
“We have to vote for it and fight for it,” Councilor Barry Sinewitz said.
He recalled his unease at learning that a Level 3 sex offender worked “down the hall from me. This isn’t just about children. It’s about women, too.”
Committee member Brandi Carpenter attended on behalf of the school board, telling councilors, “We urge you — please pass this ordinance. ... My children are in these parks, as well.”
Bettencourt speculated that the measure is likely to make some people angry. Parent Jim Guiry didn’t seem concerned about that, declaring that in committing such crimes, these offenders “have lost their rights to hang around the parks.”
The areas declared off-limits would include parks, playgrounds, recreation centers, beaches, swimming or wading pools, gyms, sports fields and facilities. Those who have committed specific crimes, such as assaults on children, would be subject to the restrictions.
Those who violate the law would face fines and their parole or probation officers would be notified.