MIDDLEBOROUGH — Paulette Lilla moved her interior design showroom from Pembroke to Middleborough last year so she could enjoy the luxury of walking to and from work.
But she says the deafening obscenities she sometimes hears shouted up and down Centre Street near her shop, The Custom Decorator, have not only affected her sense of safety, but they could also potentially hurt her store’s bottom line.
“It’s not only intimidating to my customers, it’s intimidating to a lot of people,’’ Lilla said. “It’s an implied violence that’s not conducive for downtown business, especially when we are trying to fill up the empty spaces so people will buy local.’’
Profanity, smoking pot, and drinking in public have been outlawed for years in Middleborough, as have other offenses ranging from shoveling snow into the street to littering and disorderly conduct. But a proposal before the June 11 Town Meeting could make it easier for police to rein in such behavior if residents agree to change the rules and allow them to levy fines through noncriminal tickets payable at the town clerk’s office instead of in court.
Police Chief Bruce Gates has recommended the changes in response to numerous requests from residents to clamp down on the excessive profanity and other offensive behavior that at times plague the uptown area.
Some merchants have said it’s not unusual for customers to walk through clouds of pot smoke to come patronize their businesses. While that isn’t an issue for Muriel Duphily, who with her husband owns Willy’s Auto Supply, she said the cursing and littering are.
Duphily, a former selectwoman, said she’s not intimidated by the groups of youths who hurl loud strings of curses, but she said many senior citizens are afraid to pop into nearby Cumberland Farms if there is a crowd of teens out front.
“The language is outrageous,’’ said Duphily, and so is the trash that piles up outside her business daily, including cast-off lottery tickets and sticky plastic slush cups.
“We have to make the quality of life in town better,’’ Duphily said. “And will this help? I think it will if people know they will get ticketed.”
Town Manager Charles Cristello said a number of communities have begun to convert their criminal citations to noncriminal tickets just as Middleborough is considering doing because the system is simply easier to enforce.
“For an officer to have to go to court is too time-consuming and too expensive,’’ he said. “Small departments don’t have the resources. But here, I think people are comfortable with a police officer writing a ticket. They do it all the time, so it’s just a variation of a theme.’’
Approving changes does not mean that the swear police will go on patrol, Selectman Allin Frawley said. “No one is getting a ticket for [swearing] when you stub your toe,” he said. The profanity bylaw is meant to be enforced when an exchange between people gets heated or aggressive, he said.
But, to be honest, Frawley said, he’s not sure where he stands and says he will only have a decision when it’s time for the June vote.
“I’ve gone back and forth, especially about the swearing,’’ he said. “I‘m kind of against someone infringing on my right to free speech.”
But two things lately have had an impact on his view, Frawley said. First was an instance recently when he was out playing in the yard with his 2-year-old child when three teens ambled by. “One was screaming about what an [profanity] the other kid was,” he said. “No one needs to hear that.”
Second, he said, obscenity is one of the exceptions to the First Amendment. And, he said, “I don’t think the founding fathers had any idea people would be speaking like this.”
Frawley said the blame can’t be handed squarely to young people, whether it’s swearing, smoking pot, or tossing litter everywhere. It’s rampant in town, he said.
“This is a symptom of a larger problem,’’ he said. “It’s about people who have no pride in where they live.”
Everyone has the right to voice their opinion, Frawley said: “But screaming F.U. isn’t one of them.”
Some of Middleborough’s public decency bylaws date back to 1927. The town established the public profanity bylaw in 1968, and the fine is still $20. Other infractions, like the snow shoveling statute, are set at $50.The rule punishing those who smoke pot in public, set at $300, was established in 2009 Middleborough’s fine is $200 higher than the $100 figure set by the state.If Town Meeting approves the noncriminal disposition of such offenses, anyone who wants to contest a ticket can still appeal it to the court within 21 days, officials said. Those who refuse to pay the tickets, however, could be charged criminally and then arrested.
The full Town Meeting warrant can be seen on the town’s website at www.middleborough.com.