Lawmakers are debating a bill that would prohibit sex offenders from running for school boards a piece of legislation authored after a registered sex offender ran for a seat on the Granite Board of Education last year.
The House Judiciary Committee on Thursday discussed and ultimately voted to hold onto the bill, HB64, to give its sponsor, Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, more time to tweak it.
Moss decided to run the bill this session after Richard Wagner Jones unsuccessfully campaigned against incumbent Dan Lofgren for a term on Granite's board. Jones spent five years in prison and 10 years on probation after a 1990 second-degree felony conviction of sexual abuse of a child.
Moss said many of her constituents were shocked that a sex offender was allowed to enter the election. She said as a sex offender, Jones isn't allowed to visit a school without prior permission something that could affect his ability to do the job of a board member.
"I think it was a heinous crime, and the reason he shouldn't be allowed to run is because it was an offense against a child," Moss said, "and if he is a pedophile I'm not so sure those tendencies change."
Jones, who couldn't be reached for comment Thursday, told The Salt Lake Tribune in October that he has navigated visiting school grounds with his status as a sex offender many times over the years. He said he often arranged to visit schools for his children's activities and conferences, and it was only a matter of calling the principal to get permission to be on campus which he rarely was denied, he said. His website, www.electwagner.com, describes Jones as a "repentant sinner."
"The merits of repentance and rehabilitation are generally accepted in our society as necessary for a healthy community to correct itself," the website reads. "History and our culture are rich with examples of individuals who have made great contributions to God and Country after they have committed serious errors and crimes."
A number of lawmakers, including Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns, expressed mixed feelings about the bill during Thursday's meetings.
"I am going to err on the side of I'm sorry, but if you really need to be elected, the sewer board may be a lovely place for you to start your career," Hutchings said.
Others said the choice belongs in voters' hands.
"Why should this body or even the larger body, the Legislature, take that decision away from those 24,000 voters," Rep. Brian Greene, R-Pleasant Grove, asked, referring to voters in the Granite district. "It seemed to me the process worked the way it should have."
Marina Lowe with the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah (ACLU) said prohibiting all sex offenders from running for school board might be overly broad considering some people fall into the category because of statutory rape, such as an age difference between a boyfriend and girlfriend who have sex.
And Dan Deuel, with Weber County's The 9/12 Project, a tea party group, also criticized the measure for taking such a decision away from voters.
"Maybe it was something that happened 30 years ago and the person has been a model citizen ever since," Deuel said, "and maybe I as a voter decide they are the superior candidate."
To address some of the concerns, committee co-chair Rep. Kay McIff, R-Richfield, suggested Moss take time to narrow the bill to prohibit only those who offend with children from running for school board. Moss agreed to allow the committee to hold the bill until then. She said after the meeting she fully intends to bring it back with the changes.