City Council members voted unanimously last week to loosen residency restrictions on sex offenders who are classified as "non-violent," but they made it clear that they were compelled to do so by state law.
Under the city's existing ordinance, all sex offenders are forbidden from living within 2,500 feet of any school, child care facility, open space, community center, public park or recreational facility.
However, the amendment to the ordinance which was approved last week revises the law so that those restrictions apply only to "sexually violent predators," as defined by Pennsylvania State Police Megan's Law Registry.
That means, from this point forward, non-violent sex offenders can live anywhere they want in the city, even if it's right next door to an elementary school or daycare center.
"We're voting with a heavy heart," offered council president Kathleen Connor in expressing the remorse that she and her colleagues felt about having to make the move.
City solicitor Atty. Frank Ruggiero advised that council amend the existing ordinance based upon the standing interpretation of state law. He said that interpretation has been established by decisions made over the past few years by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, in what he sarcastically called the court's "infinite wisdom."
"It's not my interpretation, but the law is very clear," Ruggiero related. "I don't agree with the law any more than anyone else up here does, and I don't think that most of the public agrees with it either. But it is what it is."
He noted that there are municipalities which have ordinances similar to Carbondale's existing law on their books — but none of them have been challenged in court as of yet. He argued that once a lawsuit is filed against any one or more of those municipalities, their ordinances will be overturned by the courts and have to be changed — with the municipalities left to pay court costs as well as any damages awarded to the plaintiffs.
In the case of Carbondale, city officials were spurred to action by former resident Leo Conway, who threatened a civil rights lawsuit against the city.
Mr. Conway addressed the council members at their August meeting about his son, Patrick Conway, a registered sex offender. Mr. Conway complained that he and his son were removed from the residence they shared on Brooklyn St. last year because the building is located across from White Bridge Playground and near the Carbondale Area elementary and high schools. Consequently, they were forced to leave town and ended up moving to Archbald.
The eviction was prompted by Mayor Justin Taylor's discovery of Patrick Conway on the Megan's Law Registry for being convicted in 2009 of unlawful contact or communication with a minor.
"We were very happy here," Leo Conway recounted in his presentation to council. "But then the mayor told me, 'Pat has to go!' That was it."
Page 2 of 2 - Mr. Conway, a retired magistrate, acknowledged that his son "did wrong" but insisted "he wouldn't hurt anybody." He complained that his son's constitutional rights were violated and his family was disparaged in the process of being evicted from their Carbondale residence. He also stated that if the city's ordinance was not revised, he would file a civil rights lawsuit against the city, arguing that case law "is on our side."
Thus, council approved the amendment to the ordinance last week, which would allow Patrick Conway and all other sex offenders deemed "non-violent" to reside in the city without restriction.
As with the council members and city solicitor, Mayor Taylor told the NEWS that the change is a necessary one to avoid a costly lawsuit that the city would in all likelihood lose.
"It's been said that criminals have more rights than victims in a lot of cases, and we certainly see that here," he explained. "There are times when public service can be quite frustrating, when doing the right thing really isn't doing the right thing, and this is one of those times."
"I wish we had a way around it, some loophole we could use to avoid doing this, but unfortunately we don't," he offered. "Until or unless things are changed at the state level, we have to abide by that."
The revised ordinance goes into effect 30 days from Oct. 21, when it was enacted by council.