Hampton, Florida is a small city of 577 people roughly halfway between Jacksonville and Gainesville. It's probably best known to Floridians as one of the most notorious speed traps in the state--one which has ensnared many a person driving along U. S. 301. But now it may be known for something else--corruption on a mind-blowing scale. It's so bad that before this month is out, it may be voted out of existence.
A state audit of Hampton's books, released last month, reads like a primer on municipal malfeasance. It found 31 instances in which local rules or state or federal laws were violated in ways large and small.The audit, viewable here, makes for horrifying reading. It revealed that truckloads of money--as much as a million dollars, according to one lawmaker--simply vanished. It also revealed a staggering level of mismanagement and corruption--personal use of city cars and credit cards, inadequate tracking of expenses, reams of unpaid bills and off-the-books deficits from the water department. For all intents and purposes, the machinery of government barely even functions because hardly anyone wants to serve on the city council. The city's last mayor, Barry Layne Moore, was suspended just weeks after taking office after being arrested for dealing oxycodone, and openly admits he's hooked on painkillers. A criminal investigation is well underway.
Somewhere along the way, the place became more than just a speed trap. Some say the ticket money corrupted Hampton, making it the dirtiest little town in Florida.
It all started when several people complained to Bradford County Sheriff Gordon Smith about Hampton's speed trap. Back in the 1990s, Hampton annexed a stretch of U. S. 301 and set up a speed trap there to collect revenue in this long-impoverished town. But almost as soon as Smith was sworn in as sheriff in 2009, he started hearing complaints about the rampant number of traffic stops--many of them without cause. When Smith asked police chief John Hodges for a list of his officers. Hodges only turned in four names, claiming 15 of them were working on "special details" and therefore couldn't be named.
That piqued Smith's interest. According to the New York Times, Smith discovered that Hampton has an awful lot of volunteer cops--some of whom drive uninsured cars. Smith was so disgusted that he cut Hampton's access to county databases and radio communications, and also barred any Hampton prisoners from the county jail. Under pressure, Hampton dismantled its speed trap last year.
But it didn't end there. Smith was also getting complaints about the corruption in City Hall. Reportedly, anyone who tried to voice concerns to city employees woke up to find their water shut off. Smith and the area's state representative, Charles Van Zant, did some digging. Over the years, they discovered that virtually all of the ticket revenue--some $616,000 from 2010 to 2012--went solely for upgrades to police equipment. This in a city where half the water pumped in from the Suwanee River can't be accounted for, and rusted-out cars abound in yards because there's no code enforcement. By last year, Van Zant and the area's state senator, Rob Bradley, had seen enough, and asked for the audit. By then, Hodges and the city's other employees had all quit or resigned. The outrage here is bipartisan--Smith is a Democrat, Van Zant and Bradley are Republicans. Looks like there are still such things as Republicans who believe in reasonably competent government.
The pattern of corruption was so egregious that Van Zant and Bradley have been leading the charge to have Hampton dissolved after 89 years of existence and its territory become part of unincorporated Bradford County. However, acting mayor Myrtice McCullough persuaded Van Zant to delay formally introducing the bill for four weeks to give Hampton time to clean up its act. To have any chance of survival, Hampton must get completely new elected officials and staffers, retrocede the stretch of U. S. 301, fix the water system and restore some measure of fiscal sanity--all by the end of the month. Stay tuned.