By LeAnn R. Ralph
COLFAX — Should Colfax have a sex offender residency restriction ordinance?
The Colfax Village Board met in closed session March 28 with the village’s attorney, Christopher Gierhart of the law firm Weld Riley, to discuss a sex offender residency restriction ordinance.
The village board used the exemption for a closed session under state statute 19.85(1)(g) “to confer with legal counsel who is rendering advice concerning strategy to be adopted by the body with respect to litigation in which it is likely to become involved with respect to enforcement or application of a sex offender residency restriction ordinance against specific individuals.”
Prior to going into closed session, Gary Stene, village president, said the village board would be unlikely to adopt an ordinance that evening.
Most likely, after discussing the issue with the attorney, the attorney will take the information, draft an ordinance, and then sometime within the next several weeks, the village board will take action on the proposed ordinance, Stene said.
About 40 people attended the meeting, which was held at the Colfax fire hall, and before going into closed session, the Colfax Village Board listened to nearly an hour of comments from those in the audience.
The village board had also held an informational meeting on registered sex offenders two nights earlier with two Wisconsin sex offender registration specialists from the Department of Corrections and had received a variety of comments at that meeting as well.
One Colfax resident said he was living in a neighborhood where he was “surrounded” by sex offenders and that what he had learned at Monday’s meeting was, “it has been left up to us to do something. The state cannot monitor. The state cannot control.”
One woman in the audience said, as a parent of a young daughter, she would be just as well satisfied if no sex offenders were allowed to live in Colfax.
The woman also said she knew it was not legal to prevent sex offenders from living in the village, but if they want to live here, the village should have a review board to consider each person on a case by case basis.
Sex offenders living near children “is like putting a beer in front of an alcoholic,” commented another woman.
One woman in the audience said sex offenders living in the village would have a negative impact on the sale of homes.
If people know there were many sex offenders living in the village, they probably would not want to move to Colfax, she said, adding she would like to see the ordinance require notifications, even if the notifications were only given to adjoining landowners.
Colfax resident Polly Rudi, who is the director of special education for the Colfax school district, said she was at the meeting as a representative of the school district, noted the school zone is a gun-free zone and should also be protected from sex offenders, along with protecting licensed daycares and parks.
“Children walk to and from school. We need to advocate for our kids,” Rudi said.
One man in the audience said it has been his observation that many convicted sex offenders are “in denial. They don’t feel they’ve done anything wrong.”
And if the sex offender is not in denial, then why would that person think of living by a school — “it’s like an alcoholic living above a bar,” he said.
Another gentleman in the audience said the Colfax ordinance should be “very restrictive.”
If someone goes through sex offender treatment, you can say that person is “unlikely to re-offend, but you cannot say he will not re-offend,” he said.
One woman said she has young grandchildren, and one day last week, there were 20 children in her yard — and a sex offender had been planning to live a block away.
One man in the audience said he did not live in Colfax but his child attends school in Colfax.
The man said he would like to see restrictions on not allowing sex offenders to be outside when the school buses are running.
One woman in the audience wanted to know if “safe houses” could be identified throughout the community where children could go if they were out and about and became afraid of someone.
An ordinance is only as good as the enforcement, she noted.
Another woman said she believed a notification system would be “vital.”
Several people mentioned the numbers of sex offenders living in Colfax — some said 11, some said 13 and some said more.
“There are six or seven in the village … I have not been notified about 11,” said Police Chief William Anderson.
Village Trustee David Wolff urged people in the audience to contact their state representatives and state senators.
Contact information for state Representative Rob Summerfield (67th Assembly District) and state Senator Terry Moulton (Senate District 23) are the Village of Colfax website, he said.
Contact the legislators about your concerns and point out there are loopholes in state law and penalties need to be stiffer, Wolff said.
“Let the officials in Madison know,” he said.
Under normal circumstances, the penalty for an ordinance violation is a citation and a fine.
In this case, the ordinance could be drafted to have a different kind of penalty, said Gierhart, the village’s attorney.
A fine is not going to be a very strong deterrent to sex offenders living in Colfax, he said.
The ordinance could be written to “seek injunctive relief through the circuit court,” Gierhart said.
If a sex offender living in Colfax violates the ordinance, then the village could obtain a court order requiring the person to move out of the village, he said.
One person wanted to know why Colfax could not completely restrict sex offenders from living in the village.
Restriction would be a constitutional violation called “banishment,” Gierhart said.
If every community had an ordinance that prohibited sex offenders, they would not be able to live anywhere, he said.
“Why is that our problem?” one man wanted to know.
“Contact your state representatives and senators,” Gierhart advised.
“The ordinance is a start, but there are (sex offenders) out there with no conviction,” Rudi noted.
One woman wanted to know if the Colfax Police Department received a list of people who are not allowed to hand out Halloween candy.
Police Chief Anderson said he does receive lists of people prohibited from handing out Halloween candy.
“And if you see someone (on the list) with their light on and they’re handing out candy, let us know. We’ll be going to have a talk with them,” Police Chief Anderson said.
Stene urged members of the audience to attend the listening sessions held by state legislators who represent this area.
“They need to feel your angst, like we have,” he said.
“They need to see people at their meetings. You need to put their feet to the fire,” Stene added.
Representative Summerfield frequently holds listening sessions in the area. His first listening session after he was newly elected in 2016 was held at the Colfax Municipal Building auditorium. He held a listening session in Elk Mound a few weeks ago.
Police Chief Anderson and the state Department of Corrections administer the law, but the state legislators need to tighten the laws, Stene said.
“Whatever we pass, we will do the best we can within the parameters of the law,” he said.
Lynn Niggemann, village administrator-clerk-treasurer, reported Stene made the following announcement after the village board’s closed session:
“The attorney will draft an ordinance that is enforceable and constitutional. We will post a draft of the ordinance, that will be reviewed at the April 9, 2018, board meeting, when it is available prior to that meeting.”