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City curb on social services is eyed

Move aimed at sex offenders

June 20, 2006

Worcester Telegram & Gazette (MA)

WORCESTER— Social services for Level 2 or Level 3 sex offenders would be banned from residential neighborhoods under a proposal submitted by the city manager for tonight's City Council meeting.

City Manager Michael V. O'Brien, responding to requests from the City Council, is suggesting a Home Rule petition for the Legislature to exempt Worcester from the state's so-called Dover Amendment that protects social service programs from city zoning regulations.

The suggested measure also would ban programs serving Level 2 and Level 3 sex offenders from anywhere, not just residential zones, that are within 500 feet of any single or multifamily residential dwelling, religious institution, park, playground, school or other educational institution. Under the proposed law, the City Council could ban the programs from residential zones and require a special permit for the programs in a non-residential zone that is within 500 feet of a dwelling, park, or educational program.

Level 3 and Level 2 sex offenders are those that the state classifies as having the highest risk and a moderate risk of re-offending, respectively.

Mr. O'Brien said, "I believe this legislation is necessary to address the risk that the unannounced and unregulated presence of individuals with records as sex offenders poses to families, particularly children, living in residential neighborhoods."

The proposal comes as anger grows in city neighborhoods that are being targeted for social services facilities. Mr. O'Brien also proposes to authorize the city to regulate programs and facilities providing services, including overnight accommodations, to all people needing temporary or emergency shelter.

They could be required to report to the city the number of people getting services at the facility every day or staying there overnight, the programming provided and whether anyone there is classified as a Level 2 or Level 3 sex offender.

The city manager delivered an earlier version of the report to city councilors Friday that also called for a ban in residential neighborhoods on programs serving people currently addicted to or using controlled substances and an option for asking the Legislature to extend the ban across the state, not just in Worcester. But that version was a mistake and the city manager is not urging that to be considered tonight, according to a spokesman for Mr. O'Brien.

State Rep. Robert P. Spellane said he will be glad to sponsor the legislation proposed by Mr. O'Brien. He said he would seek existing legislation to which to attach the measure so that it can be approved by July or December at the latest.

The Worcester Democrat, who was co-chairman of the Mayor's Social Service Task Force, said "not only do I support this but I support the version that has active substance abusers, also." District 4 Councilor Barbara G. Haller said that she too would support removing the zoning protection from programs for substance abusers.

In the meantime, she said, she is thrilled that Mr. O'Brien has responded to the concerns of the council and the community regarding sex offenders.

But Jonathan Mannina, litigation director of Legal Assistance Corp. of Central Massachusetts, was concerned about the proposal. While he had not had a chance to study the proposal in depth, he said, "it appears to be another attempt by the city to create barriers to the siting of properly-managed group homes that serve a critical function in the community."

Mayor Timothy P. Murray said he expects the proposal to be sent to the council's Public Safety Committee for consideration.

Mr. Spellane, a critic of the South Middlesex Opportunity Council, said he believes the Framingham-based social services agency is not telling the truth when it says it does not allow sex offenders in its programs. "I believe that if the agencies that are actively siting in the city right now were to have followed that task force's recommendations as adopted last October, then I don't think the manager would have a need to file this legislation," he said.

The Framingham-based SMOC had not seen the proposal by yesterday, Planning Director Gerard Desilets said.

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