By Christina Luick
A resident told the Watertown Public Safety and Welfare Committee Wednesday she was concerned about loitering and other suspicious behavior at the Washington Inn, 516 E. Main St.
But the owner, police chief and others said steps have been taken to improve the situation.
Laurie Hoffmann began her statement by saying she has lived in Watertown for over two decades and for the last several years has walked her dog regularly on Main Street.
"From the beginning I began to notice troubling patterns and behavior at the Washington Inn," she said.
She continued that she would see young men hanging around the entrance of the driveway between the Washington Inn and the Moon Rabbit every night.
Hoffmann said when she would eat at the restaurant there would be people sitting in or around cars by the restaurant who were not customers.
"A friendly smile as I walked by the cars was returned by glares and sneers with no exception," she said.
She read a post from July 30, 2018, on the Moon Rabbit Facebook page addressing the issues next door. It read:
"We would like to take the opportunity to apologize to our customers today for interrupting their meal with the police officer's arrival. This is an ongoing trespassing issue we're having with the fine hotel next door.
"As some of our regular diners have witnessed, we are forced to repair damaged property at our own expense, pick up garbage, cigarette butts, needles and continuously ask the hotel's guests to refrain from using our property as their courtyard day and night."
Hoffmann claimed from January 2017 to January 2018 there were over 100 times where the police and fire departments went to the Washington Inn for issues such as welfare checks, drug activities, parole violations, sexual assaults and domestic violence.
She said she heard that after being unable to resolve the issues, the owners of the restaurant sent a legal notice to the city, asking it declare the Washington Inn a public nuisance under Ordinance 390 and that eventually the city did, which meant there would be meetings between the police department and the building owner.
"This plan has been in place for quite some time, possibly since August 2018, although I have been unable to confirm this," Hoffmann said. "But the nuisance activities haven't been reduced to the threshold listed in the ordinance."
Hoffmann then alleged a sexual assault happened at the Washington Inn to a woman she knew by a resident of the building. She said the woman refused to press charges.
"... I believe that Ordinance 390 isn't an effective tool for improving safety at this address," she said. "Even though the ordinance includes hotels, it was originally drafted to solve the problem of an absentee landlord that owns an apartment/rental property and that worked quite well. The Washington Inn is neither an apartment/rental property nor a regular hotel. ... As such, the ordinance and resulting abatement plan haven't yielded the results that the ordinance was designed to produce."
Sherry Hellekson, the manager and owner of the Washington Inn, attended the meeting as well and responded to Hoffmann's concerns.
She said she had tried to meet with the owner of the Moon Rabbit in the past and one meeting resulted with him screaming in her face.
"You tell me how I'm supposed to talk to somebody when I can't even talk to him," she said. "It's horrible."
Hellekson said cameras have been installed on the property and they have been doing other improvements.
"We don't allow sex offenders or habitual criminals anymore as of July 1 of last year," she said.
Hellekson claimed she saw a video of the woman who was allegedly sexually assaulted and said, "It's not what you think it is."
"There is no charge as far as you saying that somebody was raped at my hotel," she said. "Nobody has been charged of rape. That actually would go under slander."
As for Facebook posts by the Moon Rabbit, Hellekson said the claims were untrue and could be slander as well but she let it go.
Hellekson added she spoke with the owner of Moon Rabbit and he thanked her and said things have changed at the Washington Inn.
"That to me made me feel really, really good that he actually communicated with me on a decent level and that everything was doing a lot better," she said.
Chairman Tim Raether said he has noticed some significant changes to the Washington Inn.
Police Chief Robert Kaminski said he meets with the Helleksons regularly and they have been addressing issues inside and outside of the building.
"We've been there twice in two months, neither of which would apply to the chronic nuisance ordinance," he said.
Alderman Kurt Larsen told the committee he has met with Hellekson and been to the Washington Inn. He said he has seen changes, including the problem of residents smoking outside the building.
"There was trespassing on the property (next door)," Larsen said. "Sherry posted signs right away, she evicted several individuals that were caught."
The committee agreed to keep looking at the progress of the Washington Inn.