And so it fell to the police to force hurried travelers to stop and savor the 1,260-foot ribbon of roadway belonging to this city. Hidden by trash bins or concealed in a stretch of woods, the officers — a word loosely applied here — pointed their radar devices. Between 2011 and 2012, Hampton’s officers issued 12,698 speeding tickets to motorists, many most likely caught outside Hampton’s strip of county road.
But, as it turns out, surprised motorists are not the only ones getting burned. So many speeding tickets were churned out for so many years and with such brazenness that this city of 477 residents came under scrutiny — and not just for revenue raising with a radar gun. Now, Hampton, an 89-year-old city, is fighting legislative momentum to wipe it off the map, after a state audit last month uncovered reams of financial irregularities, shoddy record-keeping and missing funds.
The state attorney, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Bradford County
Sheriff’s Office recently opened a criminal investigation, focusing primarily on the actions of the city’s three former full-time employees — the city clerk, the maintenance operator and the police chief.
“If half of this is remotely true, they’ve used the city as a personal pocketbook,” said the Bradford County sheriff, Gordon Smith, who routinely butted heads with John Hodges, Hampton’s police chief.
In the audit, the city sometimes offered an explanation for its slipshod documentation. The reason, for example, that no water meter logbooks before April 2012 could be found was that they were “lost in a swamp,” the result of a car accident involving the water utility operator. (There was no accident report filed.) Those logbooks might have clarified why the city’s elder-care center did not receive a water bill for seven years and why three city commissioners went unbilled for 17 months. As for the city’s pre-1999 records, Florida floods were blamed for obliterating them.
Hampton, a mishmash of trailers and wood-frame houses, some ramshackle, some not, has about 30 days to come up with a plan and make a genuine attempt to right itself or it will tumble into oblivion. The State Legislature would then take up a vote to dissolve it, handing over management of the city’s one square mile to Bradford County.
Even picking a mayor among the five Council members proved an ordeal. The post was finally filled last September, but two months into the job, the new mayor, Barry Moore, was charged with possession of Oxycodone with intent to sell. He now sits in jail awaiting trial.For years, complaints about Hampton streamed in to local politicians and the county sheriff, most often about the speed trap. Tens of thousands of motorists were stopped for speeding, even though they had little time to slow down from 65 miles per hour to 55 m.p.h., particularly coming from the south, on 301’s 1,260-foot Hampton strip. Among them were the legions of University of Florida Gator fans making game-day pilgrimages from Jacksonville to Gainesville. Even State Representative Charles E. Van Zant Sr., who represents Hampton and spearheaded the audit, got a speeding ticket here in 2011. (He said his speeding ticket — which he paid — had nothing to do with ordering the audit.)
Traffic fines were by far the chief source of revenue in a city with two gas station convenience stores and only scrapings of property taxes. In fact, Jim Mitzel, 50, a former mayor who left office in 2008 after a conflict with the police chief and the city clerk, said he helped Hampton annex the tiny slice of 301 in the mid-1990s simply to help fill city coffers.
“This town has struggled financially for years and years,” Mr. Mitzel said. “But once we got 301, our chief went crazy.”
“The last couple of years were the worst,” Mr. Mitzel said. “They went after people like fresh meat. They pulled out in front of semis.”
In pursuit of speeders, the city’s force grew to 17 from one, some of them volunteers and a few of them driving uninsured cars. Sheriff Smith said he did not know how many were actually police officers and how many were trained in radar detection. Fed up, the sheriff last year cut the police chief’s access to databases, radio communications and the use of the jail.
“We didn’t know who was bringing someone to our jail,” Mr. Smith said. “Was he a cop?”
A few years ago, the police chief added ministering to his job description. He suddenly began holding services at the tumbledown City Hall in a novel merger of church and state.
“I called it the John Hodges Church of God,” Mr. Mitzel said.
There was chatter about nepotism at City Hall. Jane Hall, the former city clerk, is the mother of the former maintenance operator, Adam Hall, who also ran the water system, and the wife of Charles Hall, a longtime city councilman. Her daughter also worked there for a short time.
“I called it, the City of Halls,” Mr. Mitzel added.
There were mutterings about vanishing city funds; personal use of city credit cards, trucks and gas; and trips to Ms. Hall’s clutter-filled house to hand over cash payments for water bills for which she offered no receipts. Some residents were threatened with the loss of water — the one utility controlled by the city — if they made trouble, Mr. Smith said. Auditors found that 46 percent of the city’s water went unaccounted for, much of it leaking through decrepit lines.
Councilman Frantz Innocent said a lack of staff and “oversight” was part of the problem. “We are just trying to fix things that happened,” he said. “If you want to go poking around looking for something, you can always find something wrong.”