Monday, March 17, 2008

Mansfield council may take another look at sex offender laws

Special to the Star-Telegram

The debate over a sex offender ordinance could be rekindled at a City Council meeting Monday because of one neighborhood's frustration at learning that a convicted child molester had moved in.

Officials have scheduled a closed-session briefing for the council about a Walnut Creek Valley neighborhood meeting Tuesday, where about 50 residents complained that they weren't notified about the offender and wanted to know what they could do to protect their children.

City officials wouldn't elaborate on the council briefing, which will precede the regular 7 p.m. meeting at City Hall, 1200 E. Broad St.

But resident Steven Kyle said the neighborhood meeting he organized appears to have had an effect.

"One of the things we wanted to do is raise the level of consciousness on this issue," Kyle said. "It sounds like we've at least made a step in that direction, and we hope it leads to some improved city ordinances."

The sex offender, now 36, was convicted of aggravated sexual assault of a 12-year-old girl and was sentenced in 1995 to 10 years in prison.

No one answered the door at his house. The phone number in public records associated with his address was disconnected.

Fractious debate

The issue of limiting where sex offenders can live raged in Mansfield until Mayor Barton Scott, who fought for an ordinance, resigned Jan. 24 in the face of a recall election.

Scott wanted to force certain registered sex offenders -- those convicted of molesting children 14 and younger -- to live farther than 2,000 feet from places children normally congregate. Council members and police officials said that state laws are sufficient and that city regulations would not improve protection for children.

Some council members said that while they don't prefer to resurrect the ordinance proposal, they will keep an open mind.

"I'm willing to discuss any adjustment or even an ordinance if the Police Department is of the opinion that we need to do something," Councilman Mike Leyman said.

Neighborhood concerns

Residents of the Walnut Creek Valley subdivision in northeast Mansfield learned a few weeks ago that the sex offender had moved into the neighborhood in December.

Because he has completed probation, state law no longer restricts where he can live. The rejected city ordinance would have applied to offenders on probation or parole and those who have completed the process.

The state sends notices to neighbors when registered offenders move nearby, but only for offenders determined to be high-risk, Mansfield police officers said.

The state rated the sex offender in Walnut Creek Valley as a moderate risk. Mansfield police said the state uses a complex formula to determine risk.

Last fall, the council considered requiring the Police Department to send alerts regardless of risk rating -- one of Scott's suggestions -- but took no action.

Word got out about the sex offender in the neighborhood because someone put fliers in several mailboxes, residents said.

Mansfield police said 31 sex offenders are living in the city.

Chilling effect

Because of their new neighbor, the atmosphere is tenser in the horseshoe-shaped neighborhood that was once filled with children riding bikes and shooting baskets, residents said.

Parents stay close, and most escort their kids to the school bus or drive them to school.

"It's sad, because we used to be such a fun neighborhood," said Kyle, who lives two houses away from the offender.

Residents were frustrated to learn from police officials that the offender would not be affected by any restrictions approved now.

Awareness helps

Police officials who attended the meeting recommended starting a Neighborhood Crime Watch program, urging the residents to get to know everyone and keep a close eye on their children outdoors.

Some residents suggested placing a photo of the offender near the bus stop and having parents take turns staying at the bus stop with the children.

Resident Pajji Miller urged neighbors to stick together and stay vigilant.

"Let's not let this man make us a prisoner in our own homes," she said.

No comments: