Mayor Barry Layne Moore was in jail facing drug charges following his arrest in November.
The town of Hampton in neighboring Bradford County is a study in what small towns ought not to do if their residents want to maintain their municipality.
Hampton was once the county seat until county government moved its business up U.S. 301 to Starke. That highway, by the way, is Hampton’s primary source of income.
One of a few towns on that stretch of highway known for their agressiveness in stopping and ticketing speeders, 500-population Hampton raked in more than $211,000 in the most recent fiscal year from traffic tickets alone. A former mayor told the New York Times that Hampton’s city fathers annexed their 1/4-mile stretch of 301 in the mid-1990s specifically so they could tap into speeding ticket revenues.
But that’s just one of the problems facing Hampton, problems that could end the town’s 90-year existence as a municipality. A recent state audit turned up a long list of problems requiring answers, many having to do with missing money, unrecorded expenditures and income, questions about municipal employee pay and other discrepancies.
In addition to the mayor, other recent resignations include the police chief, city clerk, maintenance supervisor, city attorney and two city council members.
Lawmakers including state Rep. Charles Van Zant, R-Keystone Heights, who also represents Putnam County, were ready to dissolve the town charter during this legislative session. After meeting with residents there, however, he and state Sen. Rob Bradley agreed to give the town a month to clean up its act before unplugging Hampton for good.
That could be a tall order, what with the town’s books and employees being investigated by the state as well as by Bradford County authorities.
Where did Hampton go wrong? It’s probable that residents there grew complacent as the town puttered along on its ready, external source of cash. A relative few officials and family members ran things, with too few looking over their shoulders.
While municipal meetings and records are by law open to every individual, that doesn’t count for much if nobody’s watching.
There’s a lesson to be had there for residents of all small towns, and the bigger ones, too: Government, even small-town government, is complicated and expensive; it’s up to all of us to help elect officials who’ll keep operations open and above-board, to monitor them while they’re governing, and to blow the whistle when something seems amiss.
By most accounts, Putnam’s municipalities are doing well; and the letters and calls we receive indicate that many residents are paying close attention.
That’s participatory democracy, and that’s never a bad thing.