Saturday, May 26, 2018
Opinion

Ruth: Big-time small-town corruption

Of this much we can be reasonably certain. Considering its shortcomings, this rather unfair North Florida hamlet's motto ought to be: "You're Unwelcomed in Hampton — A Town Without Probity."

It's quite an accomplishment when a municipality has become such a cesspool of corruption, cronyism, mismanagement, duplicity and downright venal idiocy as to attract the ire of the Florida Legislature, which has never been confused with Athenian democracy. This itsy-bitsy city has managed to offend the Legislature's faux ethics over a tiny cabal of yahoos stuffing their pockets by ripping off innocent dupes.

Consider, in Hampton you risk losing your charter for that sort of thing; in Tallahassee they award you with a committee chairmanship.

The city fathers of Hampton, population 477, appear to have been just a pinch too obvious when they turned the metropolis' 1,260-foot length of U.S. Highway 301 into a sticky speed trap as its primary source of revenue.

Well, you have to admit — it worked! Between 2011 and 2012 alone, the sleuths on the Hampton Police Department issued 12,698 speeding tickets. Since 2010, Hampton has collected $616,871 in lead-foot fines.

Yet despite Hampton's savvy business model, it somehow suffers from a budget deficit. A recent state audit found at least 31 violations of the city charter, including nepotism, missing funds, sloppy bookkeeping, failure to maintain records, failure to withhold payroll taxes or insure city vehicles, questionable payments and $132,000 charged to a BP gas station account. That's an awful lot of Mountain Dew.

Of course, all this could be easily explained. Hampton officials noted some missing records had been lost in a swamp, a common problem many American city halls struggle with every year. Other records were lost in a flood.

Sadly the honorable Barry Moore, who until his recent resignation was mayor of Hampton, has been unable to provide much help. He is currently sitting in the Bradford County Jail awaiting trial on a drug possession charge. Clearly, poor Hampton is a village beset by misunderstandings.

In its quest to become something out of a William Faulkner novel, perhaps home to an annual "Speed Trap Festival," featuring a Sheriff Buford T. Justice look-alike contest, the hierarchy at the sprawling Hampton chicken coop city hall ran afoul of the leading lights of governance in Tallahassee.

Now, in addition to AAA designating Hampton as the "Boardwalk Empire" of shake-down scams, the Florida Legislature wants to pull the plug on the flowing traffic ticket tap.

"This situation went on for so long and the mismanagement was so deep, we have to seriously consider abolishing the government," state Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Orange Park, whose district includes Hampton, told the New York Times.

So it is entirely possible the golden age of Hampton's Camelot-on-the-Scofflaw might well come to an end. How refreshing to see our elected representatives leaping into the breach to confront unscrupulous brigands operating under the thin guise of law enforcement preying upon the driving public.

One could only hope this is but the beginning of the Florida Legislature's crusade to exorcize sleazy, corrupt governmental entities from our midst. After all, if Bradley's gold standard for shutting down governments is long-standing, systemic money grubbing, virtual extortion and mismanagement, what better domino of bureaucratic debauchery next to fall than the Florida Legislature itself?

Hampton is accused of using its authority to pull off a conspiracy whereby people who access the roadway through the city are set upon by cheesy cops to pay essentially a transit fee, or for all practical purposes a variation of a bribe.

How is that any different from what occurs in the halls of the state Capitol, where special interests seeking to advance their issues must first pay millions of dollars under the veneer of campaign contributions?

The city of Hampton raked in more than $600,000 extorting motorists, about the cost of renting a mid-level back-bencher in Tallahassee. Hampton's sin isn't that it engaged in literal highway robbery. It's that the city wasn't smart enough to use some of its ill-gotten gains to hire a connected Tallahassee lobbyist in order to be named Florida's traffic safety capital.

It would have passed in less time than it takes to drive 1,260 feet.

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