Florida's 'Santa Claus' Of Speeding Tickets Gets Clipped
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Motorists in north Florida know the town of Hampton as a speed trap, or at least the two-block stretch of Highway 301 that passes through Hampton. And now, state lawmakers are planning to get rid of it - not the stretch of highway, they plan to get rid of the town. To explain this, reporter Aaron Deslatte joins us from Orlando. He's the capital bureau chief for the Orlando Sentinel. Welcome to the program.
AARON DESLATTE: Thank you.
SIEGEL: In the 1990s, AAA commented on the stretch of highway that goes through Hampton: they're giving out tickets as fast as Santa Claus gives Christmas presents. Nothing new here. Local police issuing speeding tickets has been going on for a long time there?
DESLATTE: That's true. This is a very popular stretch of road connecting Gainesville, where the University of Florida is, and the city of Jacksonville. So it's heavily traveled from people going back and forth for college football games or back home for college students who live in the Jacksonville area.
SIEGEL: Does the speed limit all of a sudden change surprisingly?
DESLATTE: Well, the per capita number of police officers apparently changes whenever you drive through the city of Hampton. And so, apparently, the city, in the course of a year, had as many as 17 police officers over this tiny stretch of highway and issued $200,000 in tickets.
SIEGEL: And how did all those speeding tickets lead to revelations of a bigger scandal?
DESLATTE: Well, it forced the state to step in and begin an audit of the city's financial management, and they uncovered literally more than 30 violations of either state law, city ordinance, or IRS regulations. There were budgets that weren't being posted online. There was missing petty cash. There were charges on charge cards that were not accounted for, family members employed in the city's payroll. There were even public records missing. One claim that city records went missing in a flood that they lost in a swamp when the auditors came in to look around. So they just found one finding after another, and that ultimately led lawmakers last week to start the process for dissolving the actual city.
SIEGEL: You're speaking of the city of Hampton. How big a place are we talking about?
DESLATTE: It's very tiny - 477 residents. It's literally a gas station and a red light and apparently not much more than that.
SIEGEL: And how would the legislature actually go about eliminating a city or a town?
DESLATTE: Well, cities in Florida were - many of them were created by statute in 1925 in the period of municipal reform. And so cities can actually be dissolved by the legislature. Counties can't, but cities can, which is kind of an interesting division between those forms of the local government. So the legislature can, with the, you know, blessing of the governor, actually dissolve a city. That's never happened before to my knowledge.
SIEGEL: I assume that the local police force would be dissolved as well at that point and...
DESLATTE: Yeah. And that may be largely symbolic because everyone there has apparently resigned as of last week.
SIEGEL: How did that happen?
DESLATTE: Well, there was a hearing where the audit was actually presented to a committee, at which the legislature began issuing edicts that they were going to start the process of dissolving the city. And within a day or two, everyone resigned, all the city employees and the city council, what was left of them.
The mayor had already gone. He was actually charged with selling OxyContin three months earlier. So the city didn't have a mayor already, but the city did still have a skeleton crew staff, although the water plant operator was convinced to come back and work on a temporary basis until they can figure out who's going to keep the water flowing.
SIEGEL: Assuming that somebody who lives in Hampton was not, as I guess you would say, a municipal - a city employee, how would you be affected by this if you just worked at the gas station?
DESLATTE: Well, life might improve. There were a lot of complaints that were apparently coming in from this town to the county sheriff - this is Bradford County, another very small rural county - complaints that the budget was being mismanaged. They were running deficits. There was no accountability. And when anyone complained to the city about the dealings there, their water was turned off.
So it's entirely possible life can improve whenever the actual county steps in and starts running things, which is apparently what will happen when they dissolve this city. It'll just become an incorporated county.
SIEGEL: Any idea how soon the city of Hampton, Florida might cease to be?
DESLATTE: Well, the legislature plans to introduce a bill to dissolve the city within the next month. It will probably not run into a lot of opposition and the governor could sign it as soon as May or June. So we may see the end of Hampton here in the next two or three months.
SIEGEL: OK. Thank you, Aaron.
DESLATTE: Thank you.
SIEGEL: That's Aaron Deslatte, who writes for the Orlando Sentinel. He's been reporting on the town of Hampton, Florida which the state of Florida plans to dissolve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.