Pound Has Slight Hope Sex Offenders Won't Move In
The approximately 50 Town of Pound residents who attended their monthly Town Board meeting on Tuesday, March 14 left with at least a bit of hope that Wisconsin Department of Health plans to move two convicted child sex offenders into a residential neighborhood on 7th Road some time this spring or summer may be averted.
Many of them also left the meeting with a determination to make more phone calls, send more e-mails and collect more signatures on petitions that will go to judges in Marinette and Oconto counties, state lawmakers and heads of the Department of Corrections and and Department of Health Services in Madison in an attempt to prevent what many of them feel will be an end to their enjoyment of life in the rural community for them and their families.
A state law enacted last year removed all local authority and puts the state Department of Health Services in charge of living arrangements for civilly committed violent sexual offenders who have served their prison time and are being returned to society. That law requires residences to be at least 1,500 feet from schools, churches, chid care centers, parks, and other places where young people gather, but there appears to be a glitch that allows it to be closer than that to homes where children reside, provided the properties are not adjacent.
The Town of Pound property is apparently being purchased for that purpose by a vendor for DHS who has so far remained unnamed. Town officials were told it has been sold, but so far the deed does not seem to be registered in Marinette County Courthouse.
Pound Town Chair Jerry Heroux said at the start of Tuesday's meeting that he and other town residents learned almost by accident about plans for the two known sex offenders into a residence on 7th Road. His first knowledge of it was on Primary Election Day, Tuesday, Feb. 21. There is no requirement for DHS to notify any local authorities except the Sheriff, and that was done.
Heroux said when he learned of the plans he began checking and confirmed that the DHS does have tentative plans to place two sex offenders into the home under supervised release.
Jason Cram, Supervised Release Program Manager, Bureau of Community Forensic Services, who is the person in charge of the supervised release program, told him DHS was awaiting Department of Corrections assessment of the proposed residence, and that it would be purchased by a "vendor" if it meets legal requirements. Sheriff Jerry Sauve had inspected the property with Cram's staff member Angela Seward and it does appear to meet legal requirements.
However, during the meeting Heroux said Cram, in a more recent long telephone conversation, had told him he now is waiting for a decision by his superiors, and would probably have more information by the end of the week.
Petitions signed by 120 persons protesting the proposed placements were officially presented to the town board at Tuesday's meeting. Heroux has already sent copies to the Judge Michael Judge in Oconto County, Judge James A. Morrison in Marinette County, State Representative John Nygren and State Senator Dave Hansen, and Cram.
One of the men being considered for placement, Jeffrey W. Butler, now 63, had an address in Iron Mountain, Mich. before his conviction 20 years ago for offenses involving a 10-year-old boy at a home where he was baby sitting in northern Marinette County. He is scheduled for a supervised release hearing before Judge James Morrison in Marinette County Circuit Court at 2 p.m. on Monday, May 1. Butler had served 10 years in prison and then was assigned under a Sexually Violent Person Petition to serve time in a secure mental facility, where he has been since.
The other man, Jerome C. Litscher, was convicted in Outagamie County and also had been charged with offenses committed in Oconto County. A scheduling conference for his hearing on supervised release is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. Thursday, March 18 in Oconto County Circuit Court before Judge Michael Judge.
Neither of the men seems to have local connections in Marinette County.
At the start of Tuesday's meeting, Heroux explained this was a regular town board meeting, not a public hearing, although there may be a public meeting later. Public comments would be heard on this or any other subject, and he would allow questions also when the board discussed the issues.
Town officials present included Heroux, supervisors Dave Pellman, Leonard Semrau and Mike Zeitler, Clerk Tammy Kasal, Treasurer Janelle Rymer, Zoning Administrator Tom Rich, and Municipal Judge Clifford Patz. Supervisor John Gafney was absent and excused.
The crowd was obviously concerned, but remained orderly throughout. Heroux was well prepared for the meeting, and had prepared handouts listing what he has done and learned so far. "We're glad you're here and we'll do the best we can to answer all the questions," he told the crowd.
Someone said Mr. Cram should have been invited to attend. Heroux said he was not available.
Recapping the town's involvement from the start, Heroux said he had contacted county officials, Cram, Rep. Nygren, Sen. Hansen, Wisconsin Towns Association (WTA), and Atty. Kim Coggins, who has previously handled legal issues for the town. He said Coggins and WTA people were familiar with the law and both agreed the town has no authority since State Statute 156 went into effect last year. He said both felt the law gives absolute authority to the state to act on the living arrangements and they did not think the town would find a loop hole.
Heroux had been told apparently Cram could stop or change placement for the men. He had mailed copies of the petitions to Cram. Later, copies went to Sen. Hansen at Hansen's request. He now has 30 more petition signatures and they too will apparently be forwarded. Receipt of the petitions by the judges in Marinette and Oconto counties is acknowledged on C-Cap. Heroux also wrote to the judges pointing out issues involved in the tentative town placement, which is closer than 1,500 feet to the residence of minor children.
He said he and other town board members had considered passing an ordinance but legal advisors said it would have no effect, since the state law nullifies any local ordinances that are more restrictive than the state law, and prevents them from overriding the state's authority. There also is a law preventing the town from prohibiting the sale of a property.
He said he had "gone round and round several times" with Cram over his contention that the intent of the law is to protect children and the rule should have been 1,500 feet from a residence with minor children, whether the properties are adjacent or not. He said he had talked with Cram on the issues for several hours at one point.
The proposed sex offender residence is 620 feet from one residence with children and 650 from another but the properties are not adjacent. There is a wooded lot between one of the homes and the proposed residence, and the other is across the street.
Heroux said they had considered having the town or someone else buy the wooded lot, but even knowing the reasons the owner refused to sell. They had considered putting a town park across the street, but were told it would have had to be there before consideration of the property raised the issue.
Heroux was upset that there is no mechanism requiring neighbors and local officials to be notified. "This has been going on for months but we as a town found out accidentally!" he declared.
He said he was not allowed to speak to the judges, but his letters focused on the intent of the law, versus the letter of the law, and following the intent of the law would mean the residence is too close to homes of children. For offenders statutorily identified as a serious child sex offender, the law requires that additional consideration be given to the proximity of children on adjacent properties.
Cram had told him his job is to follow the law. The department uses private vendors to locate properties, and they are paid $2,500 per month from the Department of Health Budget, with the "client" paying part if they have jobs or benefits. He is not sure if the $2,500 is per person or for the entire residence. He was told the vendor has purchased the property, and there is to be April occupancy. He was told a quirk in the law prevents release of the names of the vendors.
The law was passed because so many municipalities adopted ordinances to keep sex offenders out that the few that had no restrictions were being flooded, and if everyone adopted them, there would be no place for these people to go when they were ready to be released from the mental institution.
Heroux said two of Rep. Nygren's staff member went to the DHS offices in Madison, and it is thanks to the request from Rep. Nygren that decision on the placement "is now in the hands of powers "above Mr. Cram."
Sen. Hansen said he had opposed the bill that caused this, contacted authorities in Madison, and urged residents to contact elected representatives asking them to remove or change the law.
As to notifying the town, Tom Rich, Administrator, said he had some time ago received an inquiry as to zoning of the property, which is A-1 Agricultural/residential, as is almost the entire town except for specific businesses and the gravel pit. It wasn't until later that they realized what the inquiry was about.
The first person to speak from the floor asked for a definition of the term "violent" sex offender, and wished there were more information on just what the offenders had done. He also asked for more details on how the supervised release system works, and how much anyone is paid for the care and supervision of these people. He wanted more details on price of the property, what does "adjacent" mean, and how the entire supervised release system works, including who pays for it.
"Somebody's out to make some serious money on this," he declared. "I am not a happy camper!"
If the Sheriff's Department has to do the supervising, who pays them?
Former County Board Chair Claryce Maedke asked why this legislation was passed in the first place, and was told that with every municipality adopting laws prohibiting or severely restricting residences for these people, soon there would be no where for them to go.
"Is this a done deal?" was another question.
"There is some element of hope," Heroux replied, explaining the decision supposedly now to be made by someone higher than Cram.
Bob Seefeldt asked if they look at children living beyond the 1.500 feet and was told the rules are different for different types of offenders.
A lady asked why these violent offenders are being released and re-integrated into society at all, and why the Town of Pound was picked as a home for them. Heroux said he would gladly answer those questions privately, out in the parking lot. She asked why the communities are not notified, and Heroux said he has been asking the same question for three weeks now. She also asked what kind of sense it makes to put two violent sex offenders together, where they learn from each other, instead of somewhere that they could truly be rehabilitated.
As the discussion drew to a close, there were questions on just what should be put into a new petition. Among suggestions were a stipulation for a 1,500 radius from the home of any child. Zeitler said he had gone out and measured, "and if we could get that law changed, it would help a lot."
Rymer commented that even if they manage to prevent the two men currently being considered from moving in, the home will be owned by the vendor, and there will just be others continually moved in.
"There's proven power in numbers," Rymer declared. "As we learned on some other issues lately, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. We may not succeed here, but we may pave the way for success down the road!" She suggested they should write new petitions and canvass the entire community to get everyone to sign. They should make phone calls and send e-mails as well.
A man who identified himself as living across the road from the prospective residence was not reassured by promises of supervision. "I don't care how many bracelets they have, they're not going to cut off their feet, and they can still walk!" he declared.
Heroux stressed the importance of appearing in large numbers at the court hearings, both the one in May before Morrison, and the one in Oconto County after it is scheduled.
A business owner offered to have petitions at her business place.
Heroux said he has given everyone his cell phone number, and is willing to help with whatever they come up with.
Marco Mitrowke said he and his wife moved here 3 1/2 years ago from San Diego to get away from just this sort of thing. He offered to set up a table at the Piggly Wiggly and collect signatures half days if someone else will take the other half day.
There was also discussion that non-residents of the town also could and should sign petitions asking that the law be changed.
Maedke commented that the wording of the law as is means the rural areas like Pound will get more of this, because the cities don't want them. Heroux suggested asking that the wording of the law be changed to give more protection to homes with small children.
One father of three youngsters who lives nearby declared he is "terrified," and said he will never be able to allow his youngsters to play outdoors again. He also will not be able to sell his home because no one else would want to live there either.
Mitrowke suggested the owner of the property across the street should put a camera pointed right at the front door of the proposed residence and if either of the men steps outside unsupervised, report them at once, and have the photograph to prove it. "They are human. They are going to go outside," he declared.
Judge Patz said the Village of Coleman had adopted an ordinance more restrictive than the state law, and now the whole thing is null and void because of this.
There was a suggestion that the law be changed to require that any vendors the state pays to provide homes for these offenders should be required to live in the county in which the homes are located. There also were questions as to what kind of licensing, if any, is required to provide a home for mental health people out on supervised release.
After nearly two hours of discussion, the board called for a short break and then went on to other business.
The annual town meeting is scheduled for 8 p.m. on Tuesday, April 18.
In her treasurer's report, Rymer noted by far the largest payments were for property taxes.
Heroux urged everyone to remember when they pay their property taxes that the town gets to keep only eight or nine cents out of every dollar paid. The rest goes to the other taxing entities - the school, county, state and NWTC.
Rich reported no building permits were issued last month. A question about logging on a property with no driveway was settled when the owner offered use of his driveway for the job.
There was as complaint again from a neighbor about a barking dog and then about being sworn at by the owner of the offending animals. Judge Patz suggested that might fall under the disorderly conduct ordinance. The man is to get another warning letter, after which there could be a citation. An issue about junk outside on the same property is supposed to be resolved in spring when the owner has promised to put up a storage building.
After some detailed reports on road jobs and financing, Pellman asked Rymer to keep a separate accounting for money taken from the $40,000 bridge account, and Rymer said she can do that.
There is to be another meeting with the Town of Grover regarding work on Townline Road. They may decide to go with a new paving method that leaves the old asphalt in place and adds more gravel and another asphalt layer over it.
Heroux reported the County Highway Department was very accommodating about helping with some bridge aids, and will pay the county share even though the request came in after the work was started.
Jason M. Cram, Supervised Release Program Manager, Bureau of Community Forensic Services, MMHI-Building 14, 301 Troy Drive, Madison, Wi. 53704. Phone is 608-240-8810, and e-mail is Jason.Cram@Wisconsin.Gov.
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