Following general alarm after some learned a registered sex offender was living near Prairie Elementary School, the Waunakee Village Board Monday agreed to have legal counsel explore an ordinance restricting where sex offenders could be placed.
Waunakee Police Chief Kevin Plendl described the events of Feb. 5-7, when word got out about the registered sex offender’s residence.
Waunakee Police released a sex offender bulletin on Feb. 7, Plendl said. The offender had been convicted the previous week of attempted sexual assault of a child and child enticement. He received a lengthy probation sentence, Plendl said.
Police shared the bulletin with the community, and later in the day, Plendl was informed by the Department of Corrections that the offender had moved from the village.
Plendl said police were first notified of the offender on Feb. 5, “not by the Department of Corrections but by a village resident who had heard about it from someone else, who had heard about it from someone else.”
Police confirmed the individual was out on probation and was residing on North Madison Street and contacted the offender’s probation agent with the Department of Corrections to express their concerns given the nature of the convictions and his proximity to a school. They were informed that the residency status was being reviewed.
In the interim from Feb. 6-7, police did not hear back from the Department of Corrections but did begin to receive a great deal of feedback. On Feb. 7, police contacted a different branch of the Department of Corrections and received the bulletin.
Plendl pointed out misinformation that surfaced from the incident. Citizens had called the Department of Corrections and were told that the placement of sex offenders is determined by the municipality.
“This is definitely not accurate. It is the Department of Corrections that determines where an individual is placed,” Plendl said. “We didn’t make the determination that that individual was going to move by the end of the day; it was the Department of Corrections.”
Plendl said he thought that inaccurate information, along with other social media posts, caused confusion.
Police received a number of calls and information on social media stating if Waunakee had a sex offender ordinance, the individual would not have been placed near the school.
“That’s definitely not in this case,” Plendl said. “This individual that was convicted actually resided there for years at the same address before he was convicted.”
Plendl said he thought corrections was likely in the process of placing the individual but had not done so yet.
“The information got out, I think, ahead of what their intentions were,” Plendl said.
Plendl said sex offender ordinances pose challenges.
“I don’t want people to get a false impression that if we had an ordinance, something like this wouldn’t happen in the future,” Plendl said.
Plendl said he talked to a police chief the previous week from a community with a sex offender ordinance who described it as limited. An offender in violation would be notified and receive a certain time in which to move. If he did not move, he would receive an ordinance citation – similar to traffic violation – with a court date and face a civil forfeiture.
“If that individual does not move and refuses to move, that municipality has to make decisions about what the remedy is going to be for that, and that remedy is through circuit court,” Plendl added. “The question comes up about accrual of fees, costs associated with that and the outcome that you’re potentially looking for.”
Attorney Bryan Kleinmaier said he agreed with Plendl’s assessment. He said just 25 percent of municipalities have adopted a sex offender ordinances. If the village does want to adopt one, he would need to research other municipalities’ ordinances. In 2017, the courts ruled one village ordinance lack the basis. That ordinance was so restrictive that it essentially prohibited sex offenders from living in the community.
State statutes already restrict the proximity of a violent sex offender’s residence from a school, and municipalities are prohibited from adopting more restrictive ordinances than state statutes, Kleinmaier said.
“We also have to have the basis to support the position we take,” Kleinmaier said, adding that the Village of Waterford had nine paragraphs of recitals taken from different studies. After the 2017 ruling, municipal attorneys changed their communities’ sex offender codes, he said.
Trustee Kristin Runge asked why the Department of Corrections had not notified Waunakee Police about the North Madison Street placement.
Plendl said the offender was convicted on Jan. 28 and was not placed at the North Madison Street address but had lived there for some time. He believed if the placement were new, police would have been notified, he said. During the first part of January, police were notified of another sex offender placement in the village and indicated they were uncomfortable with it, and the offender did not move to the location, he added.
Trustee Gary Herzberg asked whether municipalities without an ordinance are more likely to see sex offenders placed within them. He said trustees should get information about what an ordinance could do for the village and whether the board should spend the money to take the next steps.
Village President Chris Zellner said the incident was emotional for everybody because it involved children.
“We can’t really win if we’re going to do this. We’re going to have people say we’re spending all kinds of money. We could put something in place that really is going to amount to a fine for a person. If we say we’re not going to do anything, then we’re not doing anything,” Zellner said.
Trustee Bill Ranum asked, “Would an ordinance actually prevent us from becoming a magnet?”
Kleinmaier said he was not aware of communities in Dane County with such ordinances.