WALDO, Fla. (AP) — The north Florida town of Waldo has long had a reputation as a speed trap, and it’s no wonder. A small segment of highway that runs through Waldo requires drivers to speed up and slow down six times: 65 mph becomes 55 mph; 55 becomes 45; then goes back to 55; then back down to 45; to 55 again and eventually, 35 mph.
AAA named the tiny town between Jacksonville and Gainesville one of only two “traffic traps” nationwide and even placed an attention-getting billboard outside the limits of the town to warn drivers to slow down before entering.
Now Waldo faces a scandal following allegations that the town victimizes motorists to turn a profit. Two police chiefs have been suspended, the police department has rebelled and the state is investigating possible wrongdoing.
The situation simmered for years until this month, when Police Chief Mike Szabo was suspended Aug. 12, apparently in response to an investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement into suspected improprieties in the way officers write tickets.
The issue then burst into the open two weeks later at a Waldo City Council meeting, when a group of police officers said they had been ordered by Szabo to write at least 12 tickets per 12-hour shift or face repercussions.
The officers also leveled allegations at the Aug. 26 meeting against Cpl. Kenneth Smith, who had been picked to fill in for Szabo. The officers complained that Smith had, among other things, mishandled evidence. The city council then suspended Smith.
Not surprisingly, things are tense at the tiny stucco storefront office that serves as Waldo City Hall. On Friday morning, Mayor Louie Davis and City Manager Kim Worley met in a small cluttered office to discuss the controversy, slamming a door shut with a “no comment” when a reporter walked in seeking information.
Waldo has long had a reputation as a speed trap, but the allegations made by the police officers were particularly stunning since ticket quotas are illegal under Florida law. In 2013, Waldo’s seven police officers filed 11,603 traffic citations, according to records obtained by the Gainesville Sun newspaper. That compares with 25,461 citations in 2013 for much larger Gainesville, which has 300 officers and 128,000 residents, including thousands of college students.
The fines paid by motorists are a big money-maker. According to the city’s 2013 budget, about half of its $1 million in revenue came from “court fines” from tickets issued. After council appearance, the officers filed a complaint with the Florida Inspector General’s Office seeking protection under the Florida Whistleblower Act. The officers said they were forced to go public because Worley failed to conduct an investigation after they told her about the quotas, the mismanagement of evidence and other problems, according to the complaint.
“City manager Worley broke the trust of the concerned members and went straight to Chief Szabo,” the officers said in the complaint. “Chief Szabo then took a retaliatory stance against the members for approximately six months.”
In a written statement released after the council meeting, Worley said the city takes the officers’ allegations seriously but will not comment further. She has requested that a commander from the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office take over leadership of the department.
The State Attorney’s Office in Alachua County said it is waiting for the FDLE to finish its investigation of ticket quotas and other wrongdoing before deciding whether to file charges against either Szabo or Smith. The FDLE did not return a message seeking comment.
The Florida Department of Transportation is in charge of setting speed limits, but says it did factor in requests from Waldo officials when setting up speed limits there. Because the stretch of highway with six different speed limits runs by schools and a popular flea market that draws many pedestrians, the department said the speed changes are legal. But enforcing speed limits is Waldo’s responsibility, said Tony Falotico, a traffic operations engineer at FDOT.
Waldo residents said many people do drive through town too quickly, but hope the multiple speed limit changes could be reduced to make it easier to comply with the law. Some welcomed news of the state’s investigation, saying people are tired of the harassment.
“I’m glad they’re doing something about it,” said Mike Barrs, 35, a longtime Waldo resident who said he’s gotten at least 20 tickets. “If I had a light out on my trailer they’ll pull me over for that, for anything.”
AAA, which named Waldo and nearby town of Lawtey as the nation’s two worst speed traps, said it opposes traffic enforcement practices designed to raise revenue rather than increase road safety. “AAA condemns all practices,” spokeswoman Karen Morgan said, “whereby law enforcement agency rates the efficiency of its officers based upon the number of arrests made or citations issued.”
Jason Dearen can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/JHDearen .