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Residents call on selectmen to ‘protect our children’ at sex offender ordinance hearing

MADAWASKA, Maine — A public hearing Wednesday about proposed changes to a town ordinance regulating residency requirements for registered sex offenders drew heated and sometimes emotional responses from audience members.

Selectmen have recommended amendments that would put the ordinance in compliance with state law, but would, in the eyes of many of the nearly 70 people attending Wednesday’s hearing at the Madawaska High School library, lessen its effectiveness at protecting children.

“It’s time we wake up,” said resident Dan Daigle. “We are amusing ourselves. The country is up in arms about child safety,” in the wake of the Feb. 14 school shooting in Florida, he said.

In his brief review for those at the meeting, Town Manager Gary Picard explained the situation in which selectmen find themselves concerning laws and regulations governing sex offenders, including where they can and cannot live.

State law, while specifying restrictions pertaining to distances from school properties, only limits sex offenders’ proximity to parks or athletic fields that are municipally or state-owned and that are “leased to a non-profit organization.” Madawaska has no parks or athletic properties that fit that description, according to Picard.

Resident Phyllis Levesque speaks during a public hearing on proposed changes to the town’s existing registered sex offender residency restriction ordinance, held Feb. 28 at the Madawaska High School library. (Don Eno)

The local ordinance, adopted in 2014, prevents those convicted of a sex offense against a person under 14 years of age from being within 750 feet of any “municipally owned” park or other area where children are the primary users. It lacks the “leased to a non-profit organization” clause stipulated in the state law.

This conflict with state law places the Madawaska ordinance out of compliance. The Title 30-A statute also specifies that a community cannot create residency restrictions that are more strict than what is laid out in state law.

“The state law is poorly written,” Picard told audience members. “It is not something we created.”

The Madawaska sex offender ordinance came up for review after local police in August charged a person listed on the Maine Sex Offender Registry with violating the existing ordinance for living within 750 feet of a public school.

Legal advice from both the Maine Municipal Associations and the town’s attorney at the Bangor-based law firm Rudman Winchell, indicated that the town’s existing sex offender ordinance was not enforceable as written with the offending passages.

“It has no teeth,” Madawaska Police Chief Ross Dubois said at Wednesday’s hearing, referring to those sections of the ordinance that veer from state law. “You can’t expect charges to stick.”

The proposed ordinance amendments remove any reference to municipally owned property. The changes also strike out restrictions related to distances from “family child care” facilities, which are not included in state statute.

Madawaska resident Phyllis Levesque asked Picard if the town amends its ordinance and the Legislature then changes state law to include town-owned parks not leased to a third party, would Madawaska go back and change the local ordinance to include such places.

“Yes, if that’s what the townspeople want to do,” Picard responded.

“The (state) law that was created does not protect our children,” Daigle said regarding the Title 30-A statute. “It’s our responsibility. Small as we are, if Madawaska challenges it, the Legislature will do something.”

Daigle advocated leaving the local ordinance as is, and challenging the state to stand by their law or change it.

“No one here [among the four Select Board members present Wednesday] is saying the state law is good,” said board chairman Brian Thibeault. Along with Thibeault, other board members present Wednesday were Don Chase, Brenda Theriault and Denise Duperre .

Resident Jason Cyr asked if the town was exposing itself to any legal liability if it kept the sex offender ordinance, unchanged, on the books.

Picard said that was a distinct possibility, especially if law enforcement officers tried to enforce it. There also is the possibility of someone simply challenging the local ordinance, even without a preceding attempt at enforcement.

“We cannot hide behind conformance,” commented Daigle, who said he had little confidence in legal feedback provided by MMA.

“It’s more important to protect our children,” he added, which elicited applause and shouts of support from many in the audience.

Levesque advocated for stronger local ordinances and changes to the state law that appears to have tied the hands of Madawaska selectmen and police officers.

“These people are predators,” said Levesque, referring to those on the state’s sex offender registry.

Levesque, who told those at the meeting that she is herself a victim of sexual abuse, pleaded with town leaders to act responsibly and protect the community’s children.

Picard suggested residents may also petition their state legislators to get the state law changed. He also said MMA told him that the group has already been in contact with some legislators to talk about the issues and conflicts Madawaska is having.

No vote was taken during Wednesday’s public hearing. Residents may vote on the proposed amendments to the sex offender ordinance, as well as a new male fowl noise ordinance and a moratorium on recreational marijuana business at a special town meeting that starts at 6:30 p.m., March 12, at the high school cafeteria.

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