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Woburn is all lathered up about pranks

There's talk of surveillance cameras to avert sudsing of park's waterfall

WOBURN -- With its gently rushing waterfall and inviting benches, Citizens Park is a landscaped jewel where a vacant lot once stood. Since it opened in 2003, the park has drawn a steady flow of morning coffee-drinkers, lunchtime contemplators, and passersby pausing for a moment of reflection or conversation while going about their business downtown. This year, though, it has also attracted a rash of pranksters.

Someone has dumped detergent in the waterfall five times since the city turned it on for the season last month, sending bubbles cascading over the side of the waterfall's collection pool, across the plaza, and down toward Main Street. Each time, the city's Department of Public Works has to spend about 10 hours of workers' time to drain and clean the pool and plumbing, wash down the plaza, and refill the waterfall.

Similar incidents happened less than once a year during the waterfall's first four seasons of operation.

The sudden increase in suds has created a bit of a local lather. Officials plan to install video cameras to monitor the park, a move that has civil libertarians concerned over what they see as the growth of a surveillance state.

Woburn officials also have considered shutting off the water or setting a timer to limit the waterfall's hours of operation if the pranks don't stop.

"We can't expect the DPW to come down here four times a week and clean it out," said Donald Borchelt, executive director of the Woburn Redevelopment Agency, which led the publicly funded effort to build the park. "It just isn't right. That's costing the taxpayers money."

Thomas Quinn, deputy superintendent of public works, said the DPW plans to install three security cameras around the plaza and could have them up as early as next week.

Borchelt said he would support shutting off the waterfall for the time being, to thwart detergent dumping until the 24-hour cameras are operating. But Mayor Thomas L. McLaughlin said that would be conceding to the rogue soapers.

"That defeats the purpose," McLaughlin said. "We don't want to see the fountain shut off. The whole idea is that the fountain adds to the ambience downtown."

Citizens Park is tucked amid a row of buildings across from Woburn Square and serves as a public way between the Walnut Street Municipal Parking Lot and Main Street.

The waterfall, the park's crowning element, flows over a 10-foot ledge of granite from the raised parking lot to the plaza and street level below.

The Woburn Redevelopment Agency, which sits next door at 371 Main St., oversaw development of the park on a vacant lot sold to the city at a discount by Citizens Bank in 2000. The DPW and contractors collaborated on the $250,000 project, and the park officially opened in June 2003.

In addition to offering a tranquil spot downtown, the park serves as the site of a summer concert series organized by the redevelopment agency and two community groups, Social Capital Inc. and the Woburn Residents' Environmental Network.

Each time the prank has occurred, a pair of DPW workers would spend four hours together washing down the plaza and carefully draining and scrubbing the fountain to remove traces of detergent that might cause the water to bubble again. Refilling the pools for the waterfall takes about three hours and requires periodic supervision from one employee, Quinn said.

Checking out the fountain after the fourth detergent dump of the season recently, Borchelt said he wanted to see the waterfall shut off and the pools drained temporarily. Then, last Monday, someone soaped the park again.

"They sudsed me right under my nose," Borchelt said. If the waterfall is shut off, "they won't get that instant gratification," he said.

But Quinn agreed with McLaughlin to keep the water on, saying both the waterfall and plaza have been spared worse vandalism or damage. "Most of the people have great respect for that park and waterfall, and I can honestly say we're lucky it's just soap suds," he said.

Marie Tsongris, a cashier at the nearby Moore & Parker news and convenience store, said the early-morning clerk at the store saw four youngsters running from the park at about 3 a.m. in the latest incident. "She said they couldn't have been more than 12," she said.

Tsongris said the incidents have had people talking downtown, especially when the bubbles have had a chance to spread before the DPW gets to the scene.

"It breaks my heart to see it, because I know the guys are going to have to go up and spend all day on it," she said.

Tsongris believes the prank is particularly disrespectful to the workers who toiled to build the park. "It was the hottest summer we ever had," she said. "They sweated blood putting that in. See, kids don't appreciate that."

Woburn officials said the cameras they plan to install will allow for live surveillance and provide recorded footage that could be reviewed in the event of another prank. It's a crime-deterring tactic tried elsewhere in the state, to some controversy.

The city of Boston installed about 40 surveillance cameras a little more than a year ago in Chinatown, along Boston Harbor, and elsewhere in an attempt to discourage mischief, and more than 450 cameras monitor activity on the MBTA. Police in Brockton this month responded to recent fatal shootings by saying they plan to install five cameras in the city. In Avon last month, voters at Town Meeting approved the purchase of a security camera for a park behind the high school. Needham is installing 11 exterior and 10 interior cameras this summer to monitor its high school.

Sarah Wunsch, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, said the ACLU believes that cameras have a legitimate role at sensitive locations, such as nuclear power plants, or for use as an investigative tool when police are looking into a particular problem for a finite period of time.

But "I would urge them not to keep those cameras up there indefinitely" in Woburn, she said, and to consider other options first, such as increased police presence or local watch.

Wunsch said the ACLU is concerned about long-term surveillance. Stored surveillance footage also creates additional questions about who has access to the video, she said.

Cameras have not been effective at combating crime in Britain, where they have been commonplace since the 1990s, Wunsch said. "Police officers often get very bored, and they end up zooming in on people's body parts."

In Woburn, officials were wary that discussing the Citizens Park pranks publicly could invite more vandalism. The mayor said he also hoped to keep the security cameras clandestine, to nab the perpetrator or perpetrators.

"I personally would like to see them get caught, so we can bring them to court and have them punished," said McLaughlin, a retired State Police colonel. He said local police are aware of the issue.

Borchelt said he would settle for having the cameras serve as a deterrent. If he were to catch a detergent-wielder in the act, part of him would want to punish the prankster. "On the other hand," he said, "you want to thank them for not doing anything worse."

Eric Moskowitz can be reached at emoskowitz@globe.com.

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