In the wake of a Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) decision last month that struck down the City of Lynn’s restrictions on where sex offenders can live, the Chelsea City Council voted in a close decision Monday night to strike down its own, similar sex offender residency ordinance to prevent any lawsuits stemming from the SJC decision.
In a 5-4 vote, the six-year-old law was taken off the books and sex offenders are now allowed to live anywhere they want in the City, as long as they abide by the state laws that provide less stringent limitations. Chelsea’s ordinance – like Lynn’s – had sought to go further than the state law by prohibiting Level 2 or 3 sex offenders from living within 750 feet of a school, playground, day care or elderly building. The Lynn ordinance that was struck down had a 1,000-foot restriction.
Those voting to repeal were councillors Leo Robinson, Paul Murphy, Giovanni Recupero, Brian Hatleberg and Dan Cortell. Those voting to keep the ordinance in place were Chris Cataldo, Clifford Cunningham, Matt Frank and Calvin Brown.
The request came to the Council Monday night in a late request from City Solicitor Cheryl Watson Fisher, who informed the Council of the SJC decision and the fact that it might open up the City to a lawsuit.
“We don’t want property owners to deny the right to sex offenders to live in a property based on an ordinance that has been deemed unconstitutional,” said Watson. “Basically, I’m asking you to repeal the ordinance as it is today because it is unconstitutional. Therefore, the private property owners that desire to rent to them can do so even if they are 750 feet from a playground, elderly complex or a school. By repealing it, you are allowing landlords to rent to them anywhere.”
She said that if a lawsuit arose from the ordinance, it would probably go against the property owner – who would rope the City into the lawsuit due to the ordinance.
She said that the restriction basically makes it impossible for a sex offender to live anywhere in Chelsea, as there are eight schools, 30 parks and several elderly complexes in only 1.8 square miles.
Several councillors were taken aback by the request and felt that it was too soon.
“It seems like we’re jumping the gun here because I don’t know the reason why we’re doing this now other than the case against the City of Lynn,” said Councillor Brown. “I’m going to have to vote ‘no.’…I think we need a little more time to work with this. If we’re repealing something, we’re taking it off the books. I’d like to look into what alternatives we have.”
Councillor Matt Frank agreed, saying he respect the solicitor’s expertise, but could not vote for a repeal.
“I respect the City Solicitor’s position here, but I’m a little concerned,” he said. “I see the sensitivities on both sides…I think we need to look into finding another number (for the distance) that isn’t 750 and isn’t 1,000.”
Councillor Brian Hatleberg said he hopes that they can find some alternative to bring the ordinance back.
“I hope we can look into alternatives, but I’m going to trust the expertise of the city solicitor that it’s important to repeal this first before looking for alternatives,” he said.
Councillor Dan Cortell agreed, saying Chelsea’s ordinance with the 750 feet is likely out of bounds, but maybe another distance would work. He also stressed that there are state restrictions imposed on sex offenders as part of their probation, including registering with the police and staying a certain distance from schools and playgrounds.
“I think we should keep an eye out for a distance that is acceptable,” he said. “We know the distance that is too far. When we see what the acceptable distance is, we will do what we need to bring this back onto the books.”