Published January 15. 2013 12:00PM Updated January 15. 2013 11:41PM
Montville — The town avoided a potential civil rights lawsuit when it rescinded two ordinances Monday that placed restrictions on where registered sex offenders would be allowed in town.
The Town Council voted to repeal the ordinances that created so-called child and senior safety zones. Marked by signs, these zones were designed to keep registered sex offenders from town-owned and town-leased property such as the senior center, senior buses, parks, playgrounds, beaches and sports fields.
Since the ordinance was introduced, Councilors Rosetta Jones and Dana McFee have voiced their concerns that the town was setting itself up for a lawsuit.
"The ordinance itself was not really enforceable," Jones said. "It was one of those ordinances that looks good on face value, but it really didn't do anything."
Both ordinances have drawn criticism from the state American Civil Liberties Union, which argued that the restrictions violate basic rights. The ACLU also took exception with the town's belief that seniors are targets of sex crimes.
Andrew Schneider, executive director of the ACLU, said he was pleased that the town decided to do the right thing. He said if a plaintiff had approached the ACLU for representation, they would have seriously considered taking on the case.
He said the law was "unnecessary, impractical and created a false illusion of safety." He said the ordinances are aimed at people who have already paid their debt to society. "It's a law that's directed at some imaginary problem, and it amounts to the unconstitutional punishment of banishment."
Jones led a successful petition drive in December and collected 537 signatures to bring the issue of the senior safety zone before the council either at a special town meeting or for its inclusion on the Town Council agenda.
Jones said she is not an advocate for sex offenders but is trying to prevent the town from entering a costly legal battle.
"We have to uphold the Constitution, or we can get into trouble," said Jones.
The ordinances would have allowed the town to issue a $99 fine to a sex offender found in either type of safety zone. A police officer would determine the person to be a sex offender by asking for a name, address and phone number.
McFee said the civil ordinances were "totally worthless" because, unlike a criminal violation, a civil one has no enforceable penalty.
He said it is impossible to identify sex offenders unless they have those words tattooed on their forehead. He also said the "feel-good" ordinance gave seniors a false sense of safety.
"Win, lose or draw — this sets us up for a federal lawsuit, which is going to be costly," McFee said. "We're already paying for enough lawsuits."
Chairperson Candy Buebendorf and Vice Chairperson Bill Caron could not be reached for comment.
After the vote Monday evening, Councilor Gary Murphy tendered his resignation for personal reasons.
Murphy also could not be reached for comment. Former Mayor Joseph Jaskiewicz was selected to take his place on the council.
The safety zones first were proposed as the town fought the state's plan to open a residential sex-offender treatment facility on the grounds of the Corrigan-Radgowski Correctional Center. The 24-bed January Center opened in February.
Jones said since the treatment facility opened, there have been no reported incidents.
Former state Sen. Edith Prague of Columbia had supported the ordinance for seniors and wanted to see it become a statewide mandate.
Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, who replaced Prague, said she is still looking at the matter and has spoken to the chairman of the legislature's Aging Committee.