Moorhead council agrees ordinance limiting sex offender residency needs more study
MOORHEAD – Citing public safety concerns, city leaders here agreed Monday night that an ordinance that could dramatically limit where high-risk sex offenders could live needed more study.
“I have a 15-year-old daughter. I’m willing to look at anything to keep her safe,” Councilman Chuck Hendrickson said at a non-voting meeting of the City Council.
A majority of council members indicated they wanted city staff to investigate how other cities restrict where sex offenders can live and if there have been any successful legal challenges against such ordinances.
The topic first came up earlier this month when residents raised concerns about two high-profile sex offenders moving into south Moorhead.
At the request of Councilwoman Brenda Elmer, City Attorney John Shockley crafted a rough draft of an ordinance, which he based off existing law in Wyoming, a town of 7,800 people 30 miles north of the Twin Cities.
That rough draft would prevent Level 3 sex offenders – those deemed most likely to reoffend – or offenders whose victims were younger than 16 from living within 2,000 feet of a school, day care center, park or playground. There would also be a 1,000-foot buffer around public school bus stops, places of worship that conduct classes or any spot where children regularly gather.
A Forum analysis found that would effectively bar sex offenders from living within city limits, save two blocks of a residential area in southeast Moorhead.
There is a grandfather clause allowing registered offenders already living in a prohibited area to remain there.
Elmer said the buffer zones don’t have to be 2,000 feet. They could be 500 feet, she said, as long as the city does something. With children living in the vicinity of high-risk offenders, it becomes a public safety issue, she said.
“I’m not sure that I would embrace Wyoming’s ordinance right here and right now, but I’m not comfortable with the status quo … especially when we talk about vulnerable populations,” Elmer said
Police Chief David Ebinger has spoken out against profoundly restricting where sex offenders can live, saying it would effectively bar them from housing and make it difficult for them to better themselves and for police to monitor them.
Councilwoman Mari Dailey echoed those concerns Monday, saying city staff needs to research what the effects of housing restrictions have been in other communities.
“You’re going to end up with this homeless population (of sex offenders),” she said. “You can’t monitor them. You don’t know what bridge they’re under, that kind of thing. That makes it even worse.”
Shockley said there are eight Minnesota communities that have such ordinances, including Wyoming, but Dailey said she wants to see cities more comparable to Moorhead.
In 2010, a similar law was proposed in Fargo that would have kept offenders from living within 1,200 feet of schools and parks, but it was not approved. At the time, Fargo Police Chief Keith Ternes objected to the plan, arguing it could lead fewer offenders to register with police as required by law.
North Dakota lawmakers also considered, but did not pass, similar statewide laws in 2007 and 2009.
Sonja Ellner, director of the Dorothy Day House of Hospitality, told Moorhead council members on Monday that barring where sex offenders can live has unintended consequences and would “adversely impact” the people they are trying to help.
Councilwoman Heidi Durand said she didn’t see a problem in studying the issue further.
“It just means we’re going to look at what serves a community’s best interest,” she said. “What keeps people safe and at the same time what helps offenders be successful in reintegrating into society.”
Durand said she was worried the buffer zones would give residents a false sense of security. Just because someone can’t live in a specific area doesn’t mean they can’t walk into that neighborhood, she said.
“And walk up into somebody’s yard where there are kids playing because parents think, ‘Well, I’m in a restricted area. I’m in a protected area,’ ” she said.
But Elmer said it’s a quality of life issue in the neighborhoods where sex offenders live that needs to be addressed.
“I hear from people that it’s changed,” Elmer said. “They’re not out. They’re not at ease as much.”
Readers can reach Forum reporter
Erik Burgess at (701) 241-5518