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Has Hampton been scared straight?

By Ann O'Neill, CNN
updated 11:21 AM EDT, Fri March 28, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Hampton expects to learn fate at tonight's meeting with Florida lawmakers
  • The city, pop. 477, was given a month to show it can govern itself
  • If lawmakers are not satisfied, they vow to push bill to dissolve Hampton
  • State audit revealed mismanagement, corruption, questionable spending

Hampton, Florida (CNN) -- It's do-or-die time in a city that has been threatened with extinction, become a symbol of small-town corruption and even been mocked in the media as "too Florida, even for Florida."

Can this worn-down, one-stoplight city prove to detractors that it can save its very soul from the venal forces that tempted it to set up a speed trap, rake in $1 million over the past few years and then lose track of the money? State lawmakers are traveling tonight to the Victory Baptist Church to see for themselves whether Hampton has been scared straight.

If state Sen. Rob Bradley and state Rep. Charles Van Zant don't like what they hear, they have vowed to move forward with a bill to dissolve the city's charter. It would be an extreme measure, for sure, and the first time anyone can remember the Florida legislature taking away a municipality's right to govern itself.

Some, like Bradley, say residents would hardly notice the difference. Hampton's library would still lend out books. Kids would still attend the award-winning local elementary school. The parks would still be open. And the county sheriff already has taken over patrolling the streets. All Hampton's residents would be missing, Bradley has said, is about $100 a year in city taxes and an unnecessary layer of government that didn't serve them very well in the first place.

Sheriff Gordon Smith calls Hampton\'s style of law enforcement \
Sheriff Gordon Smith calls Hampton's style of law enforcement "cash register justice."

But losing their cityhood would be a devastating blow to Hampton's collective sense of pride. Residents think their city is worth fighting for. And so, for the past month, they've been coming up with a way to save Hampton. A Facebook page dedicated to the cause has grown to 309 followers -- big doings in a city with fewer than 500 people in it.

The scandal that set tongues wagging

Writing tickets began innocently enough, said Hampton's newly appointed city attorney, John Cooper, who's donating his services during the crisis. A Texaco station out on U.S. 301 asked for police protection, and Hampton agreed to annex a 1,200-foot stretch of highway. Only later did someone come up with the idea that there was plenty of easy money to be made from catching speeders and writing tickets, just like neighboring cities Waldo and Lawtey were doing.

And so, Hampton officially became a notorious speed trap. The way the city map was redrawn, it looked like a giant mosquito, with Hampton sucking money directly from the highway. Problem was, the police department constantly overspent its budget, and all that ticket revenue never seemed to benefit anybody outside of City Hall.

The police department swelled to 19 officers, including the chief. But Bradford County Sheriff Gordon Smith says many of the officers weren't trained properly, and the audit found that some of them drove uninsured vehicles. One officer, nicknamed "Rambo," dressed in tactical gear and strapped an assault rifle across his chest -- just to write tickets.

2011 was Hampton's bumper year for tickets -- and it also was the year Rep. Van Zant was caught by Hampton's radar guns. He promptly paid his ticket, but the experience reminded him of the growing stack of citizen complaints. In April 2013, Van Zant asked the state auditor general to look into the city's finances.

Barry Layne Moore came into the mayor's office last fall promising things were going to change. By then, the auditors had visited City Hall, and people had a sense bad news was coming. But they still had no idea how bad. Moore barely had time to trim the hedges before he was snagged in a sheriff's sting operation. According to court documents, he allegedly sold a single, 30-milligram oxycodone pill -- a "blueberry" in street terms -- to an undercover informant for $20.

Hampton, Lawtey and Waldo were the three most notorious speed traps along U.S. 301 in Florida.
Hampton, Lawtey and Waldo were the three most notorious speed traps along U.S. 301 in Florida.

The mayor was sitting in the Bradford County jail in February when the audit was formally released and the battle for the 89-year-old city's survival began. The audit was scathing, citing violations of Hampton's city charter, as well as state and federal tax codes. The audit found plenty of other irregularities that shocked lawmakers -- including rampant nepotism, double-dipping and runaway expenses. There were duplicate payroll checks, a $132,000 credit account at the local BP station and convenience store and $27,000 in charges run up on a credit card for items that "served no public purpose." In all, the 31 violations read like a text book of municipal malfeasance.

Read the audit [PDF]

Legislators Bradley and Van Zant called for Hampton's demise. "Why is this even a city?" Bradley wondered.

The two men met with residents last month at the Bradford County Courthouse and were taken aback by the passion of their pleas to spare Hampton. Some residents said yanking the charter would be like victimizing them twice.

A criminal investigation is under way as Hampton continues to fight for its life. The lawmakers issued a list of conditions city officials would have to meet if Hampton is to survive as a city. Basically, Hampton was told it would have to elect a new city council, hire a new staff, give back the annexed strip of land along U.S. 301 and get out of the speed trap business for good.

Police Chief John Hodges, City Clerk Jan Hall and her son, chief maintenance worker Adam Hall, had already quit or been fired by then. After the lawmakers delivered their list of demands, City Council member Charles Norris Hall, the clerk's husband, submitted his resignation. The center of government was no longer what former mayor Jim Mitzel called Hampton's "City of Halls."

Moore resigned as mayor from the jail, where he is awaiting trial on the drug charge. He had been suspended since his arrest. The city attorney also resigned. The remaining council members replaced councilman Hall with a Baptist preacher and brought Cooper on board as the city attorney.

If it survives, Hampton will hold a special election in September. The four members of the city council -- including a deputy who works at the jail and who hand-delivered Moore's resignation letter -- have agreed to resign after the election. The city also will vote to amend its 1925 charter, eliminating its police force.

Hampton is home to 477 residents, and the average income is just under $30,000.
Hampton is home to 477 residents, and the average income is just under $30,000.

There literally will be a new sheriff in town.

Hampton also is in the process of adopting an ordinance that would release the annexed strip of U.S. 301. It will hold onto the strip of land along County Road 18, because a water line serves a new subdivision there, but Hampton will no longer touch U.S. 301.

Cooper, the city attorney, said he is optimistic that Hampton can convince its critics that it has cleaned up its act.

"Each of these items has been addressed, or we are addressing it," he said. "If we are operating within the statutes and within the law and our citizens want their city, they should be open to it.

"Hampton's been there a long time."

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