LEWISTON — After another lengthy — and at times emotional — debate Tuesday, the City Council largely supported an ordinance aimed at restricting where convicted sex offenders are allowed to live.

The ordinance, which was originally tabled last month, would prevent those convicted of offenses against persons under age 14 at the time of the offense from living within 750 feet of areas with “significant concentrations” of children — mainly near public schools and parks. 

However, those already living in the zones would be grandfathered until they move. The council voted 6-1 on first reading, with Councilor Jim Lysen opposed, and will take up a second reading in November. 

The debate over the issue has generally taken two tracks. Those who support the ordinance, including Lewiston police officials who drafted it, argue that other communities establishing restrictions have caused a greater burden on Lewiston, and that the restrictions would increase safety for children.

However, those opposed say similar ordinances have not been proven to work, and in some cases can make the problem worse by making offenders more difficult for police to track, while eliminating access to housing and local rehabilitation services. 

In a presentation to the council, City Administrator Ed Barrett said there has been an increase in the number of registered sex offenders living in Lewiston, which is placing a burden on police monitoring and notifications.

He said as other “service centers,” including Bangor and Auburn, have passed restrictions, Lewiston has seen an uptick, with 66 more in the past six months, making a total of 182 registered in the city. He said 14 of the additional 66 are registered for offenses against minors. 

Responding to the concern that the restrictions can create barriers to people finding affordable housing, Barrett argued that Lewiston’s ordinance would still leave “significant housing available,” unlike many of the “Draconian” ordinances seen nationwide. 

On Tuesday, as well as during previous meetings, there was a back and forth over recidivism rates for sex offenders. Both sides shared conflicting numbers, but most fall between 5 and 15 percent. 

City Councilor Michael Lachance argued that even if the rates are low among offenders, if the overall population of offenders in Lewiston is growing, that will mean more offenses against children.

“That’s a problem,” he said. “One kid is too many.” 

On the other side of the debate, Lysen, as well as many members of the public, said the residency restrictions can make the problem worse and cause more work for police, who pitched the ordinance to cut down on expenses. 

Lysen said the city should take more time to create an ordinance that is more informed and will work long-term, instead of “putting one over on the community because it looks good.” He said the current system is working and keeps offenders reporting to police. He said restrictions would cause offenders to go “underground” and stop reporting. 

“If I thought restrictions would help, I’d be the first on top of it,” he said. “It’s outrageous that we’d do something that’s not going to help, while we say we’re protecting children.”

Mayor Bob Macdonald said, “They’re not going to go underground. You can’t hide in Lewiston. It’s not like Boston or New York.” 

In his presentation, Barrett said federal courts have generally upheld ordinances that are clear and not overly restrictive, and he said the proposal “provides a reasonable balance for community safety and ability for offenders to find housing.” 

Other speakers, including Heather Everly, said that instead of ordinances like these, the city should be “empowering children through public awareness.” She called the ordinance a “quick Band-Aid fix,” and that the focus should instead be on education. 

Councilor Tim Lajoie, who works in law enforcement, called sex offenders “master manipulators.” He also ended up in a heated exchange with resident Melissa Dunn, who has spoken against the residency restrictions.

Dunn said she is a victim of childhood sexual assault but residency restrictions are not the answer. 

Peter Lehman of the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition told councilors that “decades of research” has shown that the restrictions don’t work to make children safer. 

He said despite more offenders in Lewiston, “there has not been an increase in offenses, or a decrease in safety.” 

Pauline Gudas told the council that she was a probation officer for a number of years.

“The ordinance is the right one,” she said. “How would you feel if a sex offender came up and started talking to your child? They made the decision to commit a crime against the most vulnerable.”

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Two people speak during second merger hearing

LEWISTON — During the second public hearing on the proposed consolidation agreement in Lewiston, two people spoke. 

The city opted to hold another hearing after the first hearing on Sept. 21 failed to yield a quorum of the City Council.

Mayoral candidate Charles Soule was one of the commentors, stating that after reading the consolidation agreement and associated report, he’s not in favor of the proposed staffing cuts.

“We’re not here to chip away jobs, we’re here to create jobs,” he said. 

Lewiston resident Melissa Dunn also spoke.

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