Nick Smiar knows that most people wouldn’t want to live near someone once deemed a sexually violent person.
“You could put (a house for one of these people) on top of a flag pole in the middle of the desert, and people would still object,” said Smiar, Eau Claire County Board chairman.
Because of a change in the law, counties — instead of the state — now must identify an appropriate residential option within their borders for people committed to a treatment facility under the state’s sexual predator law who have been granted supervised release.
But that option can’t be within 1,500 feet of any school premises, child care facility, public park, place of worship or youth center.
Eau Claire County officials have been given 180 days to find a housing option for a person granted supervised release, and the clock is ticking.
“We are proceeding with caution but at deliberate speed,” Smiar said.
Prompting the search, Eau Claire County Judge Sarah Harless signed an order for supervised release for Jeffrey J. Bonnin on Oct. 8, according to court records.
“When there is a court order for supervised release of (a sexually violent person) in Eau Claire County, (a temporary) committee must complete a report identifying an appropriate residential placement option and submit the report to the circuit court which ordered the release,” said Richard Eaton, Eau Claire County assistant corporation counsel in a fact sheet prepared for the county’s Committee on Administration.
“Failure to submit a report identifying an appropriate placement option can result in daily financial penalties for (the county’s Department of Human Services), reportedly up to $1,000 per day,” Eaton wrote.
The temporary committee has met since October and has attempted to locate appropriate residential housing options, Rod Eslinger, county planning and development director, said, but none of those worked out, so the committee had to consider other options, including placing these people in housing on county land.
“Other counties are experiencing the same difficulty in locating these individuals after they’ve completed their programs,” Eslinger said.
On Thursday, the county’s Highway Committee — after listening to information shared by Eslinger and Diane Cable, county human services director — unanimously approved a motion allowing use of a portion of county-owned land on U.S. 12 in the town of Fairchild about 1¼ miles northwest of the village of Fairchild.
“This property is the most viable,” said Cable, noting state officials are supportive of using the site.
While that might be the case, Smiar isn’t sure if local residents or members of the County Board are going to be fine with it.
Todd Meyer, chairman of the Fairchild Town Board, plans to attend the temporary committee’s next meeting at 10 a.m. Tuesday.
“This is all very new to us,” said Meyer, who called Cable upon learning about the proposal. “I have a number of questions about how this is going to work.”
He isn’t the first town official with questions about a sex offender’s supervised release. In late 2018 the Dunn County town of Otter Creek asked a judge to be included in court hearings involving the placement of Jamie L. Stephenson, who was committed under the state’s sexual predator law.
In December, Town Chairman Mark Warner filed a statement criticizing the property, where Stephenson was to be placed, and the placement process.
Eau Claire County’s Smiar understands both sides: Counties have to find a place for these people to live, but no one wants to live near someone who was once deemed a sexually violent person.
Earlier this month, members of Eau Claire County’s Committee on Administration expressed an interest in the county retaining ownership of the property on U.S. 12 and any housing for control purposes, Cable said.
The county acquired the property off Oak Lane in 2012, and the Highway Department uses part of it to stockpile road maintenance materials, Highway Commissioner Jon Johnson said. But there is room to put a residence there.
“We have struggled to find a residence that’s not near a park, … a school, a day care center or a church,” Cable, part of the temporary committee, told the Highway Committee.
Before a residence — most likely a manufactured home — could be placed on the property, a soil test — the first step in the process of a septic system installation — would have to be completed, Eslinger said.
If a residence is put on the property, “this is not a long-term residence for the person released,” Cable said.
Wisconsin’s sexual predator law, which took effect on June 2, 1994, created a procedure for the involuntary civil commitment of people found to be sexually violent persons.
In December 2010, Bonnin admitted to being a sexually violent person, and then-Judge Paul Lenz committed him to the state Department of Health Services.
Bonnin, 47, was convicted to second-degree sexual assault of a child for having sexual contact with a 14-year-old girl in 1992, according to newspaper archives.
He also was convicted of attempted second-degree sexual assault by use or threat of force for attempting to assault a female student in a UW-Eau Claire dormitory in 1995.
Anyone committed under the sexual predator law can petition the committing court to modify its order by authorizing supervised release if at least 12 months have elapsed since the initial commitment order was entered or at least 12 months have elapsed since the most recent release petition was denied, according to state statute.
“These individuals are highly supervised,” Cable told the Highway Committee.
For the first year of release, the court, as a condition of supervised release, shall restrict the person to his residence except for outings approved by the Department of Health Services that are under the direct supervision of a Department of Corrections escort, according to state law.
Officials asked how many individuals from Eau Claire County might be coming forward for release, and they were told four, Cable said.
“We don’t know exactly what the timing might be,” she said, noting there is a desire to create a dwelling where at least two people can live.