COUNTY OFFICIALS WANT A CHARTER, BUT WHAT’S IN IT FOR VOTERS?

From left, County Administrator Roman Gastesi, County Attorney Bob Shillinger and consultant Kurt Spitzer at the Nov. 6 charter workshop in Marathon. GWEN FILOSA/Keys Weekly

The Monroe Board of County Commissioners wants voters to approve a charter form of government, which would allow them to create a new tax to pay the enormous costs of fixing bridges and roads across the island chain.

It’s still a big ask, according to Christopher Massicotte, of Key West.
“It seems like a power consolidation,” Massicotte told commissioners at a Nov. 6 public workshop in Marathon on the charter proposal. “This just seems like it’s being done very quickly and not well thought-out.”

The workshop was part of the public process of drafting a referendum in advance of the November 2024 election. If approved by a majority of Monroe County voters, the charter – a countywide constitution – would take effect Jan. 1, 2025.

The county’s pitch is that the charter isn’t a power grab, but the only move left to collect money to raise roads and repair aging bridges, a list that already adds up to $1 billion over the next decade.
Massicotte, who runs a marketing company in Key West that has worked on local political campaigns, said it’s not enough for the county to tell voters that tourists would pay two-thirds of a new transportation tax that would be possible under a charter government.

“We say tourists pay most of these taxes,” Massicotte said. “But tell that to a single mother of three who just got off her shift and has to buy McDonald’s for her kids and now has to pay another penny for that meal.”

Commissioners and county staff say they’re still working on the referendum language and view the workshop as an example of their transparency.

“We are not interested in taxes on our residents only,” said Commissioner David Rice of Marathon.

Commissioner Holly Merrill Raschein of Key Largo said she wasn’t instantly convinced the charter form of government was the right move for the county, but County Attorney Bob Shillinger’s presentations have cleared up some questions she had.

“We’ve governed ourselves similarly for the last 200 years,” said Raschein. “We just turned 200, and things have been working reasonably well. We are resilient and we will continue. The notion that we have not been transparent is not only untrue, I think that’s unfair.”

Raschein said as an example, she doesn’t agree with putting a recall effort section in the charter referendum.

“I’m all about the voters, but aren’t those what elections are for?” Raschein asked. “We have those regularly.”

When asked by a resident if the county has done any polling on the referendum proposed, Rice said that would be a waste of time because the charter referendum isn’t finished.

Commissioner Craig Cates of Key West said he wasn’t a big fan of the charter proposal at first either, but having a countywide charter isn’t only about adding a new tax.

“Tallahassee is making decisions for this county that we don’t always agree with,” Cates said. “This gives us the opportunity for home rule and to govern ourselves here.”

“It has to go to referendum,” Cates said. “Some people act like we’re pushing this down their throats. The citizens are going to decide.”

Gwen Filosa is The Keys Weekly’s Digital Editor, and has covered Key West news, culture and assorted oddities since she moved to the island in 2011. She was previously a reporter for the Miami Herald and WLRN public radio. Before moving to the Keys, Gwen was in New Orleans for a decade, covering criminal courts for The Times-Picayune. In 2006, the paper’s staff won the Pulitzer Prizes for breaking news and the Public Service Medal for their coverage of the Hurricane Katrina disaster. She remains a devout Saints fan. She has a side hustle as a standup comedian, and has been a regular at Comedy Key West since 2017. She is also an acclaimed dogsitter, professional Bingo caller and a dedicated Wilco fan.