D.C. writ small, but with a happier ending

oF3QiWnhWkkPHampton, Florida and its speed trap finally being shut down. It’s an incredible story and a fun read. Here are some snippets:

Hampton, Florida (CNN) — 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.”

‘One heck of a debacle’

There are two reasons for the City of Hampton to exist: to provide water to 477 people and to protect the peace. Some 89 years after it became a city, the audit revealed how badly Hampton botched both jobs.

Nearly half the water the city pumps from the Suwanee River simply vanishes. Leaky pipes are partially to blame, but in some cases, the water goes to buildings without working meters. Some customers may have been getting free water for years.

Hampton’s bigger problems grew out of the city’s duty to “keep the peace.” It led to what everyone calls “the annexation” in the early 1990s.

Somebody got the idea to snap up an easement along both sides of County Road 18 and a 1,260-foot stretch of U.S. 301. Because of the annexation, the bird’s eye view of Hampton resembles a lollipop on a stick. Or, depending on your point of view, a fist with a raised middle finger. Most outsiders take the second view.

Hampton set up its speed trap, just like its neighbors, Waldo and Lawtey. Since Hampton has no schools, homes or businesses along 301, traffic safety really wasn’t the issue. The focus always was on revenue — and state and county officials say that’s where the city went wrong. It’s the crack that allowed corruption to creep in and take hold.

Culture of entitlement

City Hall is locked up tight. Trucks parked out back have been stripped of parts and left to rust. The mail is piling up. There’s no money coming in, so the last three employees have walked off the job.

It’s as if Hampton has already given up.

Tough times can leave people feeling both deprived and, oddly, entitled. Listen closely, and you can hear that culture of entitlement when some folks from Hampton speak. Moore, the jailed mayor, talks about his disability checks as his “salary.”

Smith, the sheriff, believes that folks at City Hall came to treat their government perks in much the same way. He said residents complained to him that police officers and other employees drove city cars home without signing them out. They took them to run personal errands at Walmart. When they filled them up at the BP station, they brought lawnmowers and gas cans from home too and put it all on the city charge card.

‘Why is this even a city?’

The politicians in Florida’s capital, Tallahassee, were gobsmacked by the audit when it was unveiled February 10 at a public hearing. They used words like “crazy,” “outrageous” and “weird” to describe what they heard and struggled to find the right metaphors and points of comparison: Southern Gothic literature, John Grisham novels and Al Capone came to mind.

The city doesn’t pay its bills on time, if it pays them at all, the audit says. It doesn’t balance the checkbook or withhold employee payroll taxes or hold elections when it should. It doesn’t maintain insurance on city vehicles. Record-keeping is hit or miss. The auditors were told that the records they sought were destroyed by an accident or in a flood. The water meter readings? Those were “lost in the swamp.”

This was perhaps the most disturbing bit of news to come out of that hearing: City officials acknowledged that petty cash and money from water customers — the city clerk often demanded payment in cash — were kept together in a bag. When police said he needed cash to buy drugs for “undercover investigations,” it came out of that bag, Smith and Van Zant said.

No records were kept, so nobody had a clue what happened to the money — or the acquired contraband. This much is clear to Smith: No prosecutions resulted.

 

12 Comments

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12 responses to “D.C. writ small, but with a happier ending

  1. sunbeam43

    Closely resembles Obutthead and his administration!

  2. Al Dente

    This is nothing new. There was a speed trap town in Broward County years ago: Hacienda Village. The mayor/fire chief/police chief/judge “Red” Crise once said “If you’re a redheaded man, you’re either a sissy or a son of a bitch. I’m not a sissy.”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hacienda_Village

    • No it isn’t new – in fact, what struck me is that this story could have as easily been written about a town in the 50s or even earlier. (Almost) makes me nostalgic for those days – early Americana lives on.

  3. Riverside Dog Walker

    Interesting article. I’ve driven this stretch of highway, as has most everyone needing to get from I-95S to I-75S in FL. To their credit, these towns have signs at the city limits saying they are speed traps and one mph over posted speed limit will get you a ticket. Cops I saw were in police cars, not lawn chairs. Clearly, this was all about money, not about protecting and serving.

    This is strawberry country and when I stopped at a road side fruit stand, the owner noticed my out of state plates and advised me to watch my speed.

    What a depressing portion of Florida. Road signs for prisons and cheap motels are all you see.

    • The article says that the AAA posts those billboards at the cities’ limits. I wonder how often they have to be replaced? By the way, if you ever travel to Prout’s Neck Inn up in Maine (the Winslow Homer Museum is there), the woman taking your reservation will warn you about the speed trap Prout’s Neck cops run on the stretch between 95 and the inn. Not just a southern phenomenon.

      • anon

        the modern day version of all this is the phone app I live by, Waze. Real-time users on the road, alerting drivers to cops, backups, speed traps….the only problem is looking at app while driving. it works better if there’s a passenger who can keep app open. it has saved me time when major accident is posted – can see ahead and do a go-round.
        https://www.waze.com/

  4. For those traveling closer to home, be very careful in the Town of Ossining in Westchester, particularly on Rt. 9A. They use laser speed guns instead of radar to avoid setting off radar detectors.

  5. Anonymous

    This is the worst I’ve encountered and got caught by. Podunk Ridgelqnd SC town with sliver of I 95 running through it uses cameras inside RV under overpass (looks broken down, unmarked). Used to have fixed cameras but state ruled illegal if not “manned” so some cop gets paid to sleep in RV while camera fires off. Stupidly I paid fine due to nuisance value of my time. Still makes me angry. Especially when you look at towns website full of meathead redneck cops alongside new fleet of cars and shiny new muni building. Thievery.

    http://www.speedtrap.org/view/South%20Carolina/124474

    Main site, can’t get to pics, not iPad enabled (go figure)
    http://www.ridgelandsc.gov

  6. Mazama

    Apart from the speed trap issue, my impression is the the financial malfeasance described about the town clerk and mayor is typical of small town governments, rural electric co-ops, home owners’ associations, etc. all over the country. By and large nobody EVER looks at their books to determine how much is taken in, where it goes and how much is paid and to whom for goods and services.

    Of course the same is true for larger units of government and “non-profits” as well.

    Seattle city employees were caught a few years back in large scale misuse of handicap parking permits so they could park on downtown streets all day at no cost while at work. When their crime was discovered and stopped they demanded additional pay to cover the cost of their free parking “entitlement” to which they’d grown accustomed. I imagine they got it….

    • Anonymous

      Look at most of the people using handicap parking permits today. The main handicapping condition is obesity.