Florida lawmakers are pushing to dissolve the speed trap city of Hampton
The tiny rural city was corrupted by money from speeding tickets, they say
The mayor is in jail, accused of dealing oxycodone; the employees all quit
State audit showed poor management, financial abuses, nepotism
How off-the-charts corrupt do you have to be to capture somebody’s attention in the Sunshine State?
You can lay claim to a 1,260-foot stretch of busy highway a mile outside of town and set up one of the nation’s most notorious speed traps. You can use the ticket money to build up a mighty police force – an officer for every 25 people in town – and, residents say, let drugs run rampant while your cops sit out by the highway on lawn chairs, pointing radar guns at everybody who passes by.
Of course, none of those things are illegal. But when you lose track of the money and the mayor gets caught up in an oxy-dealing sting, that’s when the politicians at the state Capitol in Tallahassee take notice.
Now they want this city gone, and the sooner the better.
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.
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.
That’s saying something, because Florida has seen enough civic shenanigans to lead the nation in federal corruption prosecutions and convictions, according to a watchdog organization called Integrity Florida. The group’s 2012 study revealed that more than 1,760 of Florida’s public officials had been convicted of corruption since 1976.
“It’s a mess,” Dan Krassner, the group’s co-founder, said of the situation in Hampton. “Clearly, there has been misuse of public funds and lack of oversight. The cronyism and nepotism is out of control.”
As for the city’s prospects, “They don’t look good.”
Sure enough, a criminal investigation is gaining steam. On Friday, Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigators and the Bradford County Sheriff’s detectives searched Hampton City Hall. The door of the police chief’s office was removed from its hinges as investigators combed the tin-roofed building for documents and other evidence.
How did things get so bad that lawmakers now think the the dirtiest little town in America has forfeited its right to govern itself?
The local sheriff, never at a loss for a colorful turn of phrase, has a theory: The speeding tickets were such a cash cow, they proved to be Hampton’s undoing.
“It became ‘serve and collect’ instead of ‘serve and protect.’ Cash register justice,” said Sheriff Gordon Smith. “Do y’all remember the old ‘Dukes of Hazzard’? Boss Hogg? They make Boss Hogg look like a Sunday school teacher.”
Whom did the pipeline of easy money corrupt in this postage stamp-size town with fewer than 500 people? And if money is missing, how much are we talking about, anyway: $200,000, $600,000? One lawmaker has suggested it’s as much as $1 million.
And where did it all go? There aren’t any McMansions rising up out of the swamp, no country clubs, no casinos, no swimming pools, no stadium, not even a new City Hall, although the old one got a fresh coat of paint when the auditors came to town.
There are some nicer homes with fishing boats tied to docks along Lake Hampton, but they sit outside the city limits. Hampton proper – several blocks on either side of City Hall – consists of ramshackle homes with sagging tin roofs. Yards are filled with junk, high grass and overgrown trees and bushes. The proliferation of No Trespassing signs is disconcerting. People here seem to have so little and yet fear losing it so much.
Some old-timers remember when it used to be much grander, the Bradford County seat, with a hotel and a railroad station and large homes with sweeping lawns. Then the fancy folks packed up and moved 10 miles up the road to Starke, taking Hampton’s dreams (and the county seat) with them.
The Florida Legislature convened last week, and by the time the session closes at the end of April, Hampton could be history.
Some residents think that would be a crying shame.
Other people say that dissolving Hampton would be more like a mercy killing.
‘Crooks or stupid people’
Despite its polite audit-speak and dry title – “Operational Audit: City of Hampton” – the 42-page report from the state auditor general makes for riveting reading. Nepotism is rampant. City cars, cell phones and credit cards were misused. The city clerk was overpaid by some $9,000, and employees ran up $27,000 on the city’s credit card and charged another $132,000 on an account at the convenience store at the BP station next door to City Hall.
“What’s wrong with that picture? That’s a lot of cigarettes and beer and what-have-you. That’s corrupt as heck,” said Jim Mitzel, who was mayor of Hampton from 2000 to 2008. He’s sitting on the bleachers of a baseball field at a city park, one of the few things Hampton has done to improve the lives of its 477 residents. (Not with speeding ticket money, though. Hampton received a grant.)
Mitzel, who is in his early 50s, acknowledges his role in greasing the revenue pipeline from the speed trap out on U.S. 301. But he says he always intended for the money to come back to the city. All he ever saw was shiny new police cars in a place where old cars rust in front yards because there’s no code enforcement.
“Where did all the money go?” he asked. “I hate to say it, but in somebody’s pocket.”
Mitzel’s daddy served on the City Council for years. He said the way Hampton’s government is set up, the employees had the run of City Hall and they didn’t cotton to dissent.
“If you start questioning, they turn things on you. I got out when the getting was good.” His