Key West’s attorney is concerned the city is violating state laws.

City Attorney Shawn Smith has told Mayor Teri Johnston and Dona Higginbotham, the consultant who’s coordinating the search for a new city manager, that applications for the position are subject to public record laws, and their refusal to release the list of applicants violates those laws. Smith says the applications are not exempt from public record laws just because they are submitted to a third-party consultant for vetting.

“The law is clear. The public has a right to those applications,” Smith told the Keys Weekly on Friday, Dec. 2. 

The Keys Weekly on Nov. 29 requested the list of candidates who have applied for the city manager position, but has not received the list as of Dec. 2. City Clerk Cheri Smith told the Keys Weekly in an email response to its request, “The city does not have the applications at this time.” It is unclear whether anyone else has requested the same information from the city.

The committee appointed to evaluate applications for city manager is due to meet Dec. 15. The mayor and Higginbotham do not want the applicant list released before that date.

“Ms. Higginbotham with the Mercer Group signed a contract with the city stating that she would comply with all Florida laws,” Smith said. 

The night of Thursday, Dec. 1, Smith emailed consultant Higginbotham, with copies sent to the mayor and city commissioners: 

“Today is Dec. 1. Neither I, nor any member of the committee or any of the commission members to my knowledge has received a response to my public records request. I have received an email request from a news agency, as have multiple others, as well. You are the city’s agent. You have city public records. You have not produced those records despite requests. The City and you are not shielded from the public records law by use of a third party. The City nor you can adopt a timeline that ignores a public records request. So, once again, when will you produce the public records? Any answer except immediately is unacceptable.”

The following morning, on Friday, Dec. 2, Mayor Teri Johnston replied to Smith’s email, writing,

“Mr. Smith, the City Commission unanimously approved a timeline and process to select our next City Manager. That process clearly states that applications will be made available to the selection committee and the Commission on Dec. 15 after the search firm selected by the City Commission has fully vetted those applications. Please discontinue your efforts to circumvent this process.”

To which Smith replied, “Gee, Ms. Johnston, I’d like to stop, but we’ve received a public records request. Despite your wishes, the City cannot violate the law.”

In a prior email to Smith on Monday, Nov. 28, Higginbotham said there appears to be an effort underway to “circumvent/sabotage the process for the city manager recruitment. … This is truly disheartening, not only for the City but for the applicants and the residents of Key West, to whom you have served for the last 16 years.

“The timeline agreed to by the City specifically indicates all resumes will be submitted to the Advisory (Search) Committee Dec. 15.  It is with great reservation that I submit resumes submitted, as you requested, at this time for the City Manager of Key West. This would mean the City Attorney would have the applications before the Advisory Committee or the Mayor and Commission. This would mean the process agreed to by the Commission and Advisory Committee is now broken.

“Applicants have entrusted our firm with their materials in hopes of being a finalist, when the recommended finalist names would be made public. Such requests at this time may jeopardize one’s current employment for those that may not be on the list of recommendations. This may also jeopardize the future of this recruitment as potential candidates will not want to jeopardize their current employment by submitting materials prior to the closing date.”

Smith replied to Higginbotham on the same day, writing, “Apparently, you do not understand the public records law in Florida. I do not care who applied or applies. My only intent was to see if we complied with the records request, and to not even look at the applications. … You do not know anything about me or my service to the City so do not presume you do.”

In a similar circumstance, the Village of Islamorada recently recruited a new Village Manager, and those applications were made available to the public as they were received.

Years ago, a superintendent of Monroe County schools had applied for a job in another Florida county while still employed in the Florida Keys. His application to the other county was also a matter of public record.

Mandy Miles drops stuff, breaks things and falls down more than any adult should. An award-winning writer, reporter and columnist, she's been stringing words together in Key West since 1998. "Local news is crucial," she says. "It informs and connects a community. It prompts conversation. It gets people involved, holds people accountable. The Keys Weekly takes its responsibility seriously. Our owners are raising families in Key West & Marathon. Our writers live in the communities we cover - Key West, Marathon & the Upper Keys. We respect our readers. We question our leaders. We believe in the Florida Keys community. And we like to have a good time." Mandy's married to a saintly — and handy — fishing captain, and can't imagine living anywhere else.