Hampton no longer facing dissolution after residents rally to save town


The Hampton City Hall, on County Road 18 in Bradford County, is pictured in the center.

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Published: Monday, March 31, 2014 at 7:15 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, March 31, 2014 at 7:15 p.m.

HAMPTON — Driving through Hampton on Monday morning, the small city with a big, bad reputation seemed the same as before the camera crews arrived.

City Hall was still there, with its rusted roof and blue accents. The volunteer fire department next door was ready for action, its trucks parked just inside the entryway. The BP gas station, where the city racked up around $132,000 on a charge account, was doing business as usual.

The town of under 500 residents has been scrutinized since February, when a state audit revealed widespread financial mismanagement, lax keeping of public records and issues involving the city's employment of relatives. State legislators quickly called for the city to be dissolved.

CNN posed the question of whether Hampton, a one-square-mile city in Bradford County best known for its little-but-lucrative speed trap, was the most corrupt town in America. The New York Times wrote about the city's troubles, too, along with a slew of other local, national and international news outlets.

But Hampton's residents now hope the town is earning a new reputation — not as the city as corrupt as it is tiny, but as the town that saved itself.

State Sen. Rob Bradley and state Rep. Charles Van Zant challenged residents in late February to make several changes, including the election of a brand new City Council and relinquishing the infamous 1,260-foot swath of U.S. 301 Hampton annexed in the '90s, if they wanted to save their city from being dissolved.

The work put in by the city government and concerned residents was enough to convince the legislators, who represent Bradford County, that the town was worth saving.

They decided Friday to withdraw a bill proposing that the city be dissolved after seeing everything the community was doing to keep the 89-year-old city alive.

When you get this much negative national attention, Bradley told The Sun, people either can hang their heads or roll up their sleeves. The residents of Hampton chose the latter.

"You really can't ask more of these citizens," Bradley said. "They've done everything that they've been asked to do, and they've proven that they want to save their city, and I'm just proud to represent them."

Bradley suggested the city with the damaged reputation eventually could become a model for the nation for how citizens can rise up and take control of their government when things go wrong.

This won't be the last time Bradley and Van Zant check in on Hampton. They plan to host a barbecue there after the town's September election to celebrate the city's rebirth and see how things are going. "But I have full faith and confidence in the ability of the citizens that have risen up to get the job done," Bradley said.

It might not be obvious from a stroll through the city streets, but much has changed in Hampton in the weeks since the state audit stirred up controversy.

All of the city's former staff members have resigned, and all of its City Council members also have submitted their resignations, although they will continue to serve until new representatives take office. Former Mayor Barry Layne Moore, who remains in the Bradford County Jail after his arrest in November on allegations of selling oxycodone, was suspended from office after his arrest but officially resigned recently as well.

Hampton is also in the process of de-annexing the slice of U.S. 301 its police department prowled for years, issuing thousands of speeding tickets even though some of the officers writing them might not have been actual cops.

The city police department has been defunct since the former police chief retired in February, and the Bradford County Sheriff's Office will continue to handle law enforcement in Hampton, as it has for some time now. There will be a charter amendment on the September ballot to eliminate the day and night marshal positions.

"It's a big relief," said acting Mayor Myrtice McCullough, who has resigned from office along with her fellow council members.

It has been heartwarming to see residents pull together to protect the town, even those who were upset with the city, she said.

The negative attention Hampton has received in the news has been tough, McCullough said, but she hopes the town will be stronger for it.

"Feelings have been hurt," she said. "But I think the people will heal."

Even though the town is safe from dissolution, that doesn't mean the rebuilding is done.

The city government still is working on addressing the numerous problems cited in the state audit, including those involving its water system. It's doing water-meter mapping and undergoing an audit of its water system as part of its effort to rectify those matters, McCullough said.

Bradford County Sheriff Gordon Smith said he is confident the city will turn its bad reputation around.

The Hampton saga drew so much national interest because many people across America feel the same way about their towns — that their voices aren't being heard and their government isn't properly representing them, he said.

"It's kind of like the old scared-straight kind of deal, but the citizens have proved you can fight City Hall and your voice can be heard among your elected officials," Smith said. "They've proven that you can make a difference."

A criminal investigation by the Sheriff's Office, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the State Attorney's Office is still ongoing, he said. The FBI also is looking into possible civil rights violations by the city and has contacted the Sheriff's Office.

James Williams, whose family has lived in Hampton for decades, said the lesson to be learned from Hampton is that people shouldn't assume local government is any more or less efficient or honest than the federal government in Washington, D.C.

"You know, we complain about Washington all the time, but you do need to keep track of local government as well," he said. "It's your tax money."

Williams said he has seen more people out pruning their yards and getting rid of the junk out there in the past few weeks than he has in the past 10 years. He also said he has enjoyed seeing folks in their 20s and 30s suddenly take an interest in the town.

Williams said he worried the negative press coverage would crush the spirit of Hampton.

"But you know what? I don't think that it has," he said. "What I see is a kind of renewed spirit for the little town."

Contact Morgan Watkins at 338-3104 or morgan.watkins@gainesville.com.

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