BANGOR, Maine — Geoff Gratwick doesn’t mind holding or voicing minority opinions. His tenure as a Bangor city councilor has often been marked by votes that challenge the prevailing trend.
That’s why he may well be the only councilor to vote against proposed residency restrictions for convicted sex offenders when the issue comes before the council in late September.
Earlier this month, Gratwick cast the lone opposing vote at a Government Operations Committee meeting that forwarded an ordinance change request to the full City Council. That request came to the city from resident Angela Hoy, who, with the help of a local lawyer, crafted an ordinance change modeled after a state law passed last year allowing municipalities to enact reasonable restrictions.
Hoy, who lives near Newbury Street Park, has strong feelings about sex offenders. Her family has been affected personally, as have hundreds of families throughout the Bangor area.
But while Hoy and others often find support when they bring up concerns, convicted sex offenders have few voices speaking up for them. Many people feel they don’t even deserve a voice. Gratwick disagrees. So does Alysia Melnick, public policy counsel for the Maine Civil Liberties Union.
“I can see there might be a pull to rubber-stamp [Bangor’s proposed ordinance] because it makes common sense, but that’s not reality,” Melnick said. “As elected officials, they have a responsibility to look at evidence and look at what is actually right. This might actually increase the risks to the public because it drives [offend-ers] underground.”
Other than Gratwick, though, no city councilor has come out in opposition to Hoy’s proposal. Gratwick, who recently saw his request to have another workshop discussion before next month’s vote denied by the rest of the council, said he would be saddened if the eventual vote was 8-1.
“Initially, this was an issue I didn’t care that much about at all, but the more I thought about it, the more it spoke to larger principles of wanting to do right,” Gratwick said.
If the ordinance passes, offenders convicted of felony crimes in which the victim was under the age of 14 would be restricted from living within 750 feet of a school, playground, park or other public area where children are the primary users. Roughly one-third of Bangor would fall within the restricted zones, including a large part of the urban core, where many rental properties are located. One of the biggest reasons registered sex offenders tend to live in service centers such as Bangor is the availability of rental housing and because support services are more prevalent in cities.
Laws that restrict where registered sex offenders can live have become more prevalent during the past decade. More than 30 states and hundreds of municipalities have enacted laws that bar sex offenders from residing near schools, parks, playgrounds and day care centers. The specified distance from a school or other venue var-ies from 500 to 2,500 feet in municipalities across the country. Many are modeled after Florida’s “Jessica’s Law,” named for a 9-year-old Florida girl who was kidnapped and killed by a molester.
Although some civil rights groups have argued that residency restrictions are unconstitutional, courts have tended to favor restrictions when laws are challenged.
Recently, the California Supreme Court upheld residency restrictions for sex offenders, ruling that thousands may be barred from living near schools and parks even if their sex crimes were committed years before the restrictions became law.
“Sex offenses are most often crimes of relationship and not geography,” Melnick said. “People need to address the reality that most offenders are known to victims.”
Bangor has slightly more than 200 registered sex offenders, according to Police Chief Ron Gastia. All are required to register with the state’s online sex offender database, but they also are monitored regularly by one of Gastia’s detectives, Erik Tall. Gastia said the ordinance change likely would not create more work for his de-partment.
The ordinance proposed for Bangor is modeled after LD 308, a bill passed last year that was signed into law by Gov. John Baldacci. Melnick testified against that bill, which eventually won legislative support after aggressive lobbying by the Maine Municipal Association.
No state agency tracks which towns have implemented local restrictions since LD 308 went into effect, but Melnick said many have and many more will follow.
“This is undeniably bad public policy, but there has to be some bravery to break cycle,” she said.
Earlier this year, Portland city councilors rejected a proposal to create residency restrictions. So far, no other municipality has followed suit.
Bangor’s proposal would give an offender who violates the new local law 25 days to vacate the residence. Additionally, residents who already live in a newly restricted zone would not be in violation. If the offender moved, however, the restrictions then would be imposed.