Lake Forest became the first Orange County city to repeal its ban on sex offenders in parks Tuesday, a move closely watched by community leaders around the county.
Citing the high cost of defending the measure in court, the Lake Forest City Council ended its ban on sex offenders in city parks. Cities such as Mission Viejo, Seal Beach, Fountain Valley, Los Alamitos and Laguna Niguel have similar bans that could be subject to legal challenges by convicted sex offenders. San Juan Capistrano discussed and ultimately rejected a ban out of liability and legal concerns.
It would cost at least $200,000 to defend the law on constitutional grounds, said City Attorney Scott C. Smith. And that's only if the city won, a prospect that seems increasingly questionable. Losing could add penalty costs, including paying the legal fees of the sex offenders who challenge the ban.
The city knew it had a legal battle on its hands when the law passed unanimously last December, said Susan Kang Schroeder, chief of staff for the Orange County district attorney's office.
"When we were here last year, we told them we would be sued," she said.
Mayor Kathryn McCullough asked if the D.A. would pay the city's legal costs if opponents made good on a promise to sue.
The question set off an argument between her and D.A. Tony Rackauckas. Read a transcript of that argument here.
Rackauckas said neither he nor the county could be expected to pay the city's fees.
One activist lawyer said she had two clients ready to sue the city if the repeal did not go forward.
"If that ordinance is not repealed, that lawsuit will be filed," said Janice Bellucci, state organizer with California Reform Sex Offender Laws.
Bellucci said only 1.9 percent of California's sex offenders are arrested again for sex crimes. "They are people who have already been in prison, already paid their debt to society," she said.
"They are people who have already been in prison, already paid their debt to society," she said.
Lake Forest resident Mary Axelrod said the ban was needed to protect the city's children from molestation.
"This is a sickness, and the only way to stop this is for them to stay away and avoid the temptation, which is going into a group of children," she said. "I would think the safety of the children would outweigh lawsuits because the people come first in all occasions."
Robert Curtis, a Lake Forest hairdresser convicted 12 years ago of a misdemeanor sex crime, said the ban keeps him from watching over his son in city parks.
Rackauckas said he was unsure if the city's repeal would be repeated around the county, saying "it's pretty hard to call." Currently about half of Orange County's cities have enacted similar laws.
A county law along the same lines is no longer being enforced following the overturned conviction of Hugo Godinez.
Keeping the law on the books but not enforcing it would still leave Lake Forest with "some vulnerability" to lawsuits, Smith said.
The council tentatively reversed the measure on a 4-0 vote with one abstention. The reversal will return later for final approval.
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Should cities defend the ban despite the risk of court challenges?