Acting Mayor Myrtice McCullough was the only person from Hampton brave enough to travel to Tallahassee and face the legislators in early February, when the audit was released. She looked like a deer in headlights.
"I know that all this stuff looks bad and is bad," she said, adding that most of the council members didn't know what was going on until the audit came back. "We're working really hard to address these issues."
She was asked then whether dissolving the city would have a negative impact on anyone in Hampton.
"I don't know how to answer that," she said.
If this were a script for a Hollywood movie, it would be time to cue the weepy, inspirational music.
McCullough gathered her wits and seemed ready to take on what needed to be done when she addressed the legislators a second time at a recent meeting at the county courthouse in Starke.
She is a lifelong resident of Hampton, and her mother was a popular mayor back in the day. She presented the legislators with a petition to save Hampton, with about 120 signatures. She asked for their help in teaching Hampton how to function as a city again.
"We have a wonderful bunch of people in Hampton," she said. "I think our people deserve a chance."
Other residents said that they'd been victimized by the monkey business at City Hall and that taking their city away would only victimize them a second time. Two preachers spoke about forgiveness and redemption. One man called Van Zant a "bully" and accused him of "decimating Hampton because you got a speeding ticket."
Van Zant, a God-fearing man himself, denied acting out of spite.
"Read the audit," he retorted. "Enough said."
The first vote was unanimous: dissolve Hampton's 1925 city charter.
Van Zant agreed to delay taking the legislation before the full House to give Hampton a chance to show that it can govern itself. The city has just four weeks to make its case. If it fails, the House will probably pull the plug on Hampton, and the Senate will rubber-stamp its approval. Hampton then would become part of unincorporated Bradford County.
To survive as a city, the good people of Hampton must toss out the old regime at City Hall and bring in new people. Legislators said everyone must go, both elected officials and staff. The city has to get out of the ticket business and give up that finger of annexed land. It has to fix the water system and figure out how to dig itself out of its deep financial hole -- a prospect that could cost every man, woman and child in Hampton at least $500.
It's a tall order. There isn't much time.
"I want to see you succeed," Bradley said. "I want everyone to live in a community they are proud of. But I want everyone to understand that what happened was unacceptable. They should be outraged. I am outraged."
The lawmakers promised to return to Hampton in late March or early April to see for themselves.
Someone will have to find the keys and unlock City Hall, because it could be the biggest crowd since the AAA came to town in 1995 to label Hampton a speed trap.
Can Hampton save itself?
Across from City Hall, behind the BP station where the city ran up $132,000, a typical Hampton house with a No Trespassing sign slowly collapses into itself. Wires run from the house to a camper out back, and three small children play in the tall grass on a broken swing set, among the scavenged toys, bicycles, coolers and car parts.