An ordinance that would ban registered sex offenders from parks in Rancho Santa Margarita received unanimous City Council support on Wednesday night.
However, questions remain as a representative from the city’s largest homeowners association—which operates a large percentage of the parks in Rancho Santa Margarita—said the association could not support the ordinance as is currently written because of insurance liability issues.
In a 5-0 vote of the first reading, City Council members approved the first reading of an ordinance that would create “child safety zones” around local parks.
If the ordinance passes a second reading at the next city council meeting, registered sex offenders would not be able to enter the child safety zones without written permission from the Orange County Sheriff’s Department.
The punishment for violation of this ordinance includes time in a county jail for no more than six months, a fine of no more than $500, or both imprisonment and fine.
Steve Baric, the mayor pro tempore, thanked city staff and the city homeowner’s associations for helping move the measure forward, saying that the ordinance “protects those who are most vulnerable among us.”
“We have an extremely safe city here in Rancho, and we’re extremely blessed,” Baric said. “But what’s important to understand is that we are not entirely safe.
“We’ve been doing a very thorough analysis of this ordinance for almost five months now, so I’d ask my colleagues to help me move this forward.”
Baric proposed the ordinance in June after an incident in Rancho Santa Margarita where a Mission Viejo man allegedly ; the councilman said that even though other cities have also moved forward with such legislation, he believed RSM was the only city that had a relevant incident that inspired the ordinance, and even made reference to an incident last week in which to a girl at Cielo Vista Elementary.
According to city attorney Greg Simonian, the city’s HOAs can decide to participate in the law or not. The city does not own or operate any of the parks within its boundaries, except part of Canada Vista Park.
And in the case of SAMLARC, the city’s largest HOA, right now the decision to support the ordinance is no.
"The SAMLARC Board of Directors has taken a 'no' position on this, but I will share with you that we didn’t do it lightly,” said Don Chadd, President of the SAMLARC Board of the Directors.
Chadd said the ordinance hasn’t addressed certain issues and that, as it currently stands, would open the HOA up to “significant risks" of exposure to lawsuits, especially if a SAMLARC homeowner who is also a registered sex offender, decides to sue the HOA over the ordinance.
“It’s a difficult issue,” Chadd said during the public hearing on the ordinance. “I don’t want anyone walking away thinking that Don Chadd doesn’t want to protect children. I have four daughters myself. I have four granddaughters.”
He said however, the question for the city is is, “Are you willing to indemnify us?”
Brian Fitzpatrick, a senior deputy district attorney for Orange County, said the DA’s office supports the ordinance.
“I don’t know a lot about insurance and I don’t know a lot about homeowner’s associations, but I do know a lot about protecting children from sex offenders,” Fitzpatrick said.
“I do know about the serious, significant, and substantial risk that it is to have sex offenders walking around parks. ... Anything the city can do to protect our children from those sex offenders, we support and we encourage."
According to the city attorney, the ordinance is written in such a way that HOAs can choose to participate in the ordinance if they desire.
Under city policy, an ordinance goes through two readings before it becomes law. If councilmembers approve the second reading at the next council meeting, the law would go into effect 30 days later.
A number of communities have enacted similar laws including Mission Viejo and the county of Orange.
Jeff Gibson, Coto de Caza resident and longtime proponent of the ordinance, said he was pleased with the vote.
“It’s a commonsense reform that is long overdue,” said Gibson. “We are very grateful for the council's support.”
He also thanked Baric for seeing the process through.
The second reading of the item will take place at the next council meeting, February 8 at 7 p.m., in council chambers.