City too corrupt for Florida is spared

This worn-down, one stoplight town found redemption Friday night in a Baptist church named Victory. Cheers broke out in the pews as two Florida lawmakers abandoned their quest to strip Hampton of its cityhood.

HAMPTON, Florida — This worn-down, one stoplight town found redemption Friday night in a Baptist church named Victory. Cheers broke out in the pews as two Florida lawmakers abandoned their quest to strip Hampton of its cityhood.

The battle for the 89-year-old city’s survival began in February with the release of a scathing audit that read like a textbook of municipal malfeasance — finding 31 violations of local, state and federal codes, along with allegations of nepotism, double-dipping and personal use of city property.

Surviving was a sweet win for this city of just 477 residents — 476 if you don’t count the former mayor, who’s sitting up the road in jail on a drug charge.

Already a notorious speed trap, the place gained even more infamy as a symbol of small-town corruption when the legislators threatened last month to yank its city charter. Late-night comedians mocked Hampton as “too Florida, even for Florida.”

But even as Conan and the rest of world cackled, even as investigators carted boxes of documents out of Hampton City Hall, even as some residents pointed fingers, others rolled up their sleeves and started to turn their city around.

In just four short weeks, they came up with a plan that convinced state Rep. Charles Van Zant and Sen. Rob Bradley to spare their city. They won an uphill fight nobody thought they could win.

“Thank you for the work that has been done,” Bradley told the crowd of 50 gathered Friday at Victory Baptist Church. “You’ve got a lot more to do, but boy. …” He clearly was impressed, and so was Van Zant, who said, “You’ve done yeoman’s work. I think you’ve done well.”

The trouble began innocently enough, said John Cooper, Hampton’s newly appointed city attorney. A Texaco station out on nearby U.S. 301 asked for police protection after a few bad traffic accidents and a couple of homicides. And so, 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.

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 said 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 was the year Van Zant was caught by Hampton’s radar guns. The lawmaker 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.

Mayor Barry Layne Moore was sitting in the Bradford County jail in February when the audit was formally released. He and other city officials suspected it would be bad. But nobody had any idea how bad.

How bad was it? So bad that legislators Bradley and Van Zant immediately called for Hampton’s demise.

In addition to the code violations, the audit found plenty of other eye-popping irregularities — a $132,000 credit account at the local BP station, for example, and $27,000 in credit card charges for items that “served no public purpose.”

Van Zant accused Hampton of “abusing the public,” while Bradley wondered, “Why is this even a city?”

When they met with Hampton’s citizens last month, the two men were taken aback by the passion of residents’ pleas to spare their city. Some said yanking the charter would be like victimizing them twice. The lawmakers listened, and threw down a challenge: If the city didn’t clean up its act soon, they vowed to move forward with a bill to dissolve the city’s charter — an extreme measure, for sure. It would be the first time anyone could remember the Florida Legislature taking away a municipality’s right to govern itself.

The legislators never expected Hampton would meet the challenge. But Hampton surprised them.

Four people — call them The Replacements — led the city’s charge.

Myrtice McCullough became the acting mayor after Moore was arrested on a charge of selling a single 30-milligram oxycodone pill to an undercover informant. Moore hadn’t been part of the problem; he came into office as a reformer. But he didn’t have time to be part of the solution, getting arrested less than two months after taking office.

His replacement pleaded with the legislators to give Hampton another chance and last month handed up a petition with 119 signatures. She softened their outrage by asking for their help.

The Rev. Dan Williams was appointed to the City Council when Charles Norris Hall resigned in the midst of the scandal. Williams’ family has lived in Hampton since the 1920s, and his talents include inspiring oratory and organizing armies of multiskilled volunteers.

Amy Davis stepped in as city clerk; she knows Hampton, having worked as the clerk once before. Davis understands how to use accounting software and knows how to apply for grants and follow money trails. Already, she has discovered that Hampton is only $6,425 in the red this year — a shortfall that can easily be corrected.

Cooper took over as the city attorney. Not only does he know municipal law and how to connect the dots, he’s working for the city free of charge.

The lawmakers were swayed by the progress Hampton has made under the new leadership. In just four weeks, Hampton:

• Accepted the resignation of every elected official who was in office when the scandal broke and called for a special election in September to seat new ones;

• Agreed to get rid of its police force;

• Accounted for the $132,000 spent at the BP station across from City Hall;

• Accounted for the $27,000 credit card balance;

• Started tracking the city’s water meters;

• Drafted an ordinance de-annexing the section of U.S. 301 where the speed trap operated;

• And began holding City Council meetings at regular hours and opening them to the public.

“What you’ve seen here in the past month is the rebirth of your town,” Van Zant told the residents as Friday’s meeting came to a close. “I want to encourage everybody who has never served on the City Council to run for office. … We want some new blood. We want to see a new genesis in Hampton. Make this thing work for you.”

The lawmakers say they will return to Hampton once more to follow up on the city’s progress. The next visit is planned for a Friday night in September, after the new council is elected. This time, there are plans for a good, old-fashioned Southern barbecue.

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