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Florida's speed-trap city agrees to reform, won't be killed off

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A tiny northern Florida city that received national notoriety for issuing thousands of speeding tickets on its funky stretch of highway will be spared from death.

State lawmakers Friday dropped their threat to dissolve Hampton, a 1-square-mile city located an hour's drive south of Jacksonville. Auditors in February reported that the small cadre of officials in the city of about 500 residents mismanaged the city's bank accounts, credit cards and collections. The city had just three full-time employees: a clerk, a police chief and a water manager.

Most egregiously, city officials discovered an intriguing revenue stream shortly after annexing a quarter-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 301 about 20 years ago.

The square-shaped city turned into a comical fly-swatter, sticking out to reach a business near the highway that wanted to be protected by city police. Realizing it could capitalize on drivers making the trek in and out of Jacksonville, the city slowly grew a volunteer police force and caught motorists in its new speed trap.

During the last handful of years, that revenue stream ballooned to more than $200,000 annually, the Orlando Sentinel reported.

Over the last few months, council members and other officials have resigned and former Mayor Barry Layne Moore has remained in jail since December on suspicion of felony narcotics possession with intent to sell, according to jail records.

Some of the officials are under investigation for possible public corruption. For example, about $160,000 was spent on city credit cards during four years without any spending policies or accounting in place, according to the audit.

During a community meeting Friday night, about 70 Hampton residents listened as interim officials announced the city would clean itself up. Two lawmakers in attendance promptly dropped their dissolution bid.

"It's clear city residents have made significant progress over the last month," State Sen. Rob Bradley told the Los Angeles Times in a telephone interview Saturday.

An election will be held Sept. 9 to bring in new leaders. They will be tasked with, among other items, balancing the budget and ensuring the city's water system is properly maintained. And the city will outsource law enforcement duties to the Bradford County Sheriff's Office.

"The city is no longer going to be a speed trap," Bradley said. "All of the former employees who caused mischief are gone."

Bradley said he and state Rep. Charles Van Zant had no idea what the outcome would be when they first called for an audit of Hampton's finances. Van Zant acted on citizen complaints about the city after receiving a speeding ticket there himself in 2011.

A month ago, the lawmakers gave the people of Hampton an option.

"We are here to help to make sure there is no longer a government serving itself and not the people," Bradley said. "We were going to remove the city if the people didn't reform it."

Through emails and in-person discussions, Bradley managed to speak to nearly 100 city residents.

"We’re proud of them and happy this story appears to end with a happy ending," he said. "A small town of 500 people can be viable as long as the citizenry remains diligent and involved."

Residents celebrated the lawmakers' decision to keep the city alive.

"With flowers blooming, the town looks great," James Williams said in a post on the "Save Our Town of Hampton, Fla." Facebook page. “Thanks as well to Rep. Van Zant and Sen. Bradley for giving us a swift kick and a heads up.”

The two lawmakers plan to throw a barbecue for the city on the Friday after the special election.

"We’ll celebrate the new beginning," Bradley said.

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