Key West city officials on Tuesday raised the subject of compromise on the cruise ship dispute. CONTRIBUTED

City lawmakers changed the course of Key West’s cruise ship conversation on Oct. 5, introducing words like, “compromise,” “mediation,” “stakeholders,” “discussion” and “input from all sides” — ideas that had been raised by some business owners 19 months ago.

Commissioner Greg Davila suggested a meeting of all stakeholders, including Safer Cleaner Ships, which led the voter-approved 95% reduction in cruise ship traffic, and the owners of Pier B, the privately owned cruise dock that has given the city 25% of its cruise ship revenue for nearly 30 years. City Attorney Shawn Smith has repeatedly warned about a costly lawsuit from Pier B if the city infringes on its business and revenue.

“If we can get Safer Cleaner Ships in the same room as Pier B, that’d be good,” Commissioner Greg Davila said. “I don’t think discussion is ever a bad thing.”

Commissioner Sam Kaufman said, “I think we should invite all parties to formal mediation,” while Commissioner Billy Wardlow said what has been on several people’s minds for months, “I know we can do something (to regulate ships) at Mallory Pier and the Outer Mole, but Pier B being private property is different. I wouldn’t want someone telling me what I can do with my property.”

Ships agent John Wells, who founded Caribe Nautical more than 25 years ago, has estimated that if the city turns large ships away from the two docks it controls — Mallory and Outer Mole — and allows them to continue visiting Pier B, there would be a 60% to 65% reduction in Key West’s annual cruise ship traffic, compared to the 95% reduction that would occur at all three docks.

“We want to satisfy the will of the people, but we have other people — including the state — who could take action against us,” Commissioner Clayton Lopez said. “I am always in favor of getting as much information and input as we can.”

Commissioner Jimmy Weekley then said, “SCS has done a fabulous job. Now the ball’s in our court. Whichever attorney we hire, we’re the client, not SCS. We appreciate what SCS has done; now we’ve got to do our duty.”

Attorney conflicts

The compromise conversation occurred following City Attorney Shawn Smith’s report to the commissioners about the hiring of outside counsel to help draft and defend the city’s reduction in cruise ship traffic against anticipated lawsuits from Pier B and other affected business owners.

“My concern all along is the effect on private property,” Smith said. 

Joe Jacquot, the attorney nominated by Safer Cleaner Ships, told Smith last week that he has “conflicts with the cruise lines.”

Safer Cleaner Ships treasurer Arlo Haskell has said those conflicts shouldn’t be a problem because no cruise lines have formally opposed Key West’s cruise ship reductions.

“Even if we’re not sued by the cruise lines, they would almost certainly be one of the witnesses in a lawsuit,” Smith told the commissioners on Tuesday. “What do you want me to do? You told me to hire the outside counsel that Safer Cleaner Ships wanted. I can’t do that.”

Smith added that he had received a recommendation from a respected attorney, and the commission directed him to reach out to that attorney while also raising the subject of compromise with Pier B.

“I know we can do something (to regulate ships) at Mallory Pier and the Outer Mole, but Pier B being private property is different. I wouldn’t want someone telling me what I can do with my property.”
— Commissioner Billy Wardlow

Additional legal concerns 

The outside attorney isn’t the only legal issue surrounding the city’s cruise ship dispute.

John Wells of Caribe Nautical sent a letter to the city commissioners and city attorney on Oct. 4 outlining an “alarming situation” that occurred, Wells wrote, when Mayor Teri Johnston “unilaterally imposed the cruise ship restrictions on the Port of Key West without any official action taken by the city commission and in violation of state law. Two meetings between city officials and cruise line executives resulted in immediate cancellation of long-established cruise ship berth reservations.”

Wells’ letter points out that state law voided Key West’s cruise ship referendums and the city has not yet passed ordinances to replace those voided referendums, meaning the mayor “unilaterally acted to dictate city policy regarding the November referenda restrictions, which have been invalidated under state law, without an approving vote of the city commission.”

City Attorney Shawn Smith told the commissioners at Tuesday’s meeting that Wells’ letter and the concerns raised in it also concern him. Smith was not involved in the meetings with cruise line executives, who had asked the city to approve the companies’ new COVID policies, which is a new requirement mandated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

“Furthermore, I must advise the city commission and city attorney that the actions of the mayor and city officials are specifically in direct violation of the state law” that voided the city’s cruise ship referendums and prohibits any other initiatives that restrict maritime commerce.

Smith said he had forwarded Wells’ letter to the mayor and commissioners. The letter was also attached to Tuesday’s agenda.

Johnston said she had not received the letter. The rest of the commission said they had received it. Smith said he would resend it to Johnston. The commission did not discuss the matter further on Oct. 5.

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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.