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In tiny Hampton, national shame will be hard to shake

HAMPTON

For years, she saw signs that something was awry in her quiet city.

Linda Godwin saw the city clerk grabbing cigarettes and drinks at the local convenience store, telling the clerk something and then walking out without paying.

Her son-in-law told her of riding into Gainesville in a city vehicle with the city clerk's son, watching him rack up bills at Walmart on the city credit card. He suspected the expenditures were personal.

She knew her daughter would go months without the clerk collecting a water bill. Occasionally, she'd go to the clerk's house and pay cash. No receipt was issued.

In a town about 1 square mile with fewer than 500 residents, stories like this don't stay secret. But the city's small size both allowed it to dodge external oversight and made internal change difficult.

"What can you do?" Godwin, 67, asked. "They're up there and can do what they want. You can't fight City Hall."

Not everyone remained silent, though.

For years, the Bradford County sheriff and state representatives accumulated files of complaints, mostly from motorists disputing speeding tickets from the city's tiny stretch of U.S. 301.

By April 2013, the smoke was too thick to ignore, Sheriff Gordon Smith said. The state's Legislative Auditing Committee requested an audit and published the results last month.

A water supply with nearly half of the water unaccounted for. Duplicate salary checks. Missing time sheets. A police department that wrote more tickets than Fort Lauderdale in one year but still outspent its budget.

The resulting outrage from Tallahassee — and the shame that came from being mocked in the media as the most corrupt town in America — shook the tiny city. Now, the Legislature is poised to revoke the city's charter and revert it to an unincorporated stretch of land within the county.

The residents of Hampton have just weeks to prove their dysfunctional city deserves another chance.

• • •

A century ago, Hampton aspired to greatness. Hotels, a bank and a grocery store lined County Road 18, then the main highway in the area.

"We were the place to be at the turn of the century," newly appointed City Clerk Amy Davis said. Half a century later, "when they brought in 301, it bypassed Hampton and pretty much turned us into a ghost town."

People here feel some pride that their hometown once vied for county seat. But they're also honest about the city's shortcomings. By the 1980s, Hampton, like many small towns, dealt with a surge in drug crimes. Its police force of two worked the cases.

Faye Mullins moved to Hampton during that time and worked at the convenience store at the center of town. One time, she saw a man chase someone with a chain saw. Another used the store microwave to dry out his homegrown marijuana.

"This cigarette vendor came in. Looked like he was about 6-foot-5," Mullins recalled. "He said, 'I was scared to come into Hampton.'

"There I was, 4-foot-11, working until 11, 12 o'clock at night. I said, 'It's not as bad as they make it out to be.' But it sure did have a bad reputation."

By the 1990s, the city was ready to build itself up again. That's when the idea to annex about a quarter square mile of land between the city center and U.S. 301 came about.

"The entire intentions back in those days was to gain more property revenue because we were always so broke," said former Mayor Jim Mitzel.

The city acquired around a dozen houses along CR 18 and connected itself to a 1,260-foot stretch of land along U.S. 301. Mitzel figured they would pick up the property taxes and do a little ticket writing along the way.

Almost immediately, Hampton gained a reputation among travelers. In 1995, AAA labeled its small segment of the highway a speed trap. But AAA spokesman Mark Jenkins said John Hodges, the police chief, was reluctant at the time to use the land as a revenue source, and fought with other city officials to change their practices. In 1997, AAA removed the rating.

Over the next decade something changed. Hodges was the one urging his 18 officers — some who might not have been properly certified — to issue tickets as a means of financial salvation for the city. They wrote $1 million worth over seven years to Gator fans, out-of-state visitors and Hampton's own state Rep. Charles Van Zant, R-Keystone Heights.

It wasn't just the number of tickets that raised issues with Sheriff Smith and other officials, but the manner in which the officers would target cars.

In an attempt to enlarge their ticket-writing jurisdiction, Hampton police moved city limit signs. Smith sent his deputies to mark the highway to indicate the city limits because the signs would disappear or be posted down the road.

"It just became so absurd," Smith said. "I finally went to City Hall and told them do not move those city limit signs or somebody's going to go to jail."

Things got so bad, Smith said, judges started throwing out speeding tickets from Hampton. Sometime in late 2011 or early 2012, Smith said, Hodges agreed to pull his officers off 301 and write tickets only within the municipality. But that didn't last long.

"Sitting in the property of the Hampton Baptist Church, Chief Hodges himself told me they needed the money and he's going back out on 301," Smith said.

The stories of Hampton police perched on lawn chairs and holding radar guns along the ribbon of highway are true, said Mitzel, the former mayor.

"And they about killed people out there sometimes. They would shoot out in front of that traffic, almost cause all kinds of accidents," Mitzel said. The last two accidents on Hampton's stretch of road involved their own police vehicles, Smith said.

The state audit revealed Hodges' officers wrote more than $616,000 in tickets in three years. Nevertheless, over that same period, Hodges overspent his budget by $30,000. Much of the department's gear, including M-16s, vehicles and radar equipment, came from other departments or grants. Shoddy recordkeeping makes it difficult to see where the money went.

"What do we have to show for it?" Mitzel asked. "Do you see a new city hall? You don't see nothing in here that came from all that revenue money. All we kept getting were more police cars and more police officers."

• • •

The speed trap annoyed travelers, but the real headache for Hamptonites lay inside the worn-down City Hall managed by Jane Hall, a chain-smoking city clerk who kept her own hours.

Hall, who resigned when the auditors first came to Hampton, is the wife of longtime City Council member Charles Hall. Her son, Adam Hall, was the former maintenance operator. Her daughter occasionally made appearances on the city payroll.

"Everyone who was getting paid through the city, their last name had to be Hall, it seemed like," said former Mayor Barry Moore.

The city itself saw no benefits from the inflated salaries of its employees. Sidewalks remained unedged. Roads flooded easily. When Moore made a maintenance request, he was told the city did not have a lawn mower, edger or wheelbarrow.

The lack of a city code allowed homes to decline. Lawns collected a medley of broken-down vehicles, appliances and trash. Residents say the worst culprits were the Halls, across whose yards junk sprawled.

Adam Hall's misuse of city vehicles documented in the audit was also a common topic of discussion, said Shenika Maisonet, 25, a lifelong resident.

"You knew he's using it for personal business," Maisonet said. "And we've said for years, 'Y'all don't even drive around to check the (water) meters, but you drive that truck to Gainesville and Starke?' "

"The meters never got read," said Gene Brannock, 69. "You had a $28 flat fee if you used 100 gallons or 100,000 gallons."

Independent auditors told officials repeatedly that the water department should take in more money than it did. But that information didn't make it to the public, in part because City Council meetings were held during the workday when residents were less likely to attend.

"We don't have access to the books, as far as citizens go," said Bill Goodge, a City Council member elected last fall. "We didn't know we were that broke. … Nobody really knew how bad it was until the audit came out. And now we're trying to fix it. We're going to fix it."

That's what former Mayor Moore said. He took office last fall as a reformer. Even without the audit, he knew the city was going to have to make some changes. The first was getting rid of Adam Hall.

"He was getting paid a large amount of money every week to basically do nothing," Moore said. "Everyone was saying Hampton was broke, and he was our biggest cost."

By Moore's estimates, Adam Hall worked less than a quarter of the hours for which he was paid.

But Moore didn't get the chance to put his plan in motion. Two months after he took office, Bradford sheriff's deputies charged him with possession of oxycodone with intent to sell.

Moore, who maintains his innocence, recently filed his resignation letter from jail.

• • •

Goodge and other concerned residents have until the end of the month to devise a plan to convince state Rep. Van Zant, who ordered the latest audit, and the other legislators that Hampton is worth saving.

They admit it won't be easy.

De-annexing the land adjacent to U.S. 301 is a first step. Council members hope the good-faith effort will show Hampton has a renewed desire to do things by the books.

Amy Davis, who as city clerk in the 1990s helped bring in state grants for housing and a city park, is back in the job and taking on the arduous task of trying to sort through the city's finances and restore order to the water plant.

"I felt like I owed it to my community to take the knowledge I have in my head from being here so many years," Davis said. "I want to do my part to correct any wrongs there might be. I can tell you this, there won't be a check or receipt that walks out of this office that's not cross-referenced. There'll be a paper trail."

To Davis, the city is worth fighting for. Where else, she asks, can you recite your neighbors' names and leave your doors unlocked?

She treasures Friday nights spent watching kids play outside as the church projects movies on the side of the old building. Inside the community hall, the teens play pool and crack jokes.

Davis isn't the only one stepping up. Brannock, who moved to town two years ago, said he would run for mayor if the Legislature allows the city to keep its charter. He has pored over the budgets and records dating to 2006 and feels confident the city can find a way forward.

"We need to get new blood in there," Brannock said.

Others, such as Joshua Davis, have considered running for City Council. Davis, 28, lives in Fox Hollow, a subdivision of newer homes and well-manicured lawns.

"Calling us the most corrupt town in America is a bit far-fetched," Davis said. "The problem is that this town got found out about. But this is not the only town in America that has these kinds of issues going on with it every day."

For many, Hampton losing its status as a city would be like losing your last name.

"It's kind of hard to be living in a place your whole life and then someone comes and wants to take it away from you," said Frank Bryant, 60, a City Council member decades ago who moved back in November. "Give the city a chance. It took time to get this way and it's going to take time to straighten it out."

Times news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Caitlin Johnston can be reached at cjohnston@tampabay.com or (813) 661-2443.

This story has been revised to reflect the following correction: The Florida Legislature has abolished a municipality before. In 1963, Boulogne was given to the Nassau County Commission.

In tiny Hampton, national shame will be hard to shake 03/23/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 26, 2014 3:54pm]
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