MIDDLEBOROUGH — It just got easier to keep things clean in Middleborough, whether it is the mouths of combative adolescents swarming the town center or people who think nothing of dropping trash on the street.
Town Meeting members, by a 183 to 50 tally, voted Monday to decriminalize a range of longstanding bylaws that regulate antisocial offenses, including excessive swearing in public, at a $20 fine; littering, at $50; shoveling snow into the street, $50; and public smoking of marijuana, which has a fine of $300.
The changes, proposed by Police Chief Bruce D. Gates, were aimed at easing the process by which a police officer can use discretion to write a citation similar to a parking ticket, rather than having to spend the time and money to take the case to court.
Gates said he recommended the changes in response to many requests from residents to clamp down on the excessive profanity and other offensive behavior that at times plagues uptown and other areas.
Merchants like Muriel Duphily, who with her husband owns Willy’s Auto Supply, applauded the new measures to curb cursing that she said is so intimidating at times that many senior citizens are afraid to patronize downtown shops.
Others residents, like former selectman Adam Bond, an attorney with an office at the four corners of South Main, Centre, and Wareham streets, was not so enthusiastic. He said the language in the profanity bylaw, in particular, could be read as vague and hard to enforce.
Other speakers, like Diane Matella of Wood Street, asked for clarification of exactly what the town’s new definition of profanity is, because to her, it is subjective.
“I don’t think your legal budget is big enough to handle it if we vote this in,’’ she said. “It’s a question of our First Amendment rights.”
Former town manager Jack Healey, now cochairman of Middleborough Youth Advocates, said annual surveys of town students show that marijuana rates have tripled over the past five years in the town’s middle school and that since the state decriminalized its use people think they can smoke it in public without recrimination.
“You see people gathered at Cramer Park harassing passersby, particularly women,” he said. “These changes allow police to enforce reasonable cause that will affect people in a major way.’’
Gates has taken heat on the “swear law” issue that went viral after it was introduced several months ago, prompting calls and criticisms from news outlets across the country.
He stressed that the laws are not new, just the ways the town will deal with them. “I don’t think they will be used a lot,’’ he acknowledged, but when they are, they will save his department’s resources.
Michele Morgan Bolton
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