Key West city officials last week started talking about compromises with regard to the cruise ship dispute and a potential lawsuit from the owners of the privately owned Pier B, which has given the city 25% of its cruise ship revenue for the past 30 years. 

Commissioner Greg Davila on Oct. 5 suggested bringing to the table representatives from Pier B and Safer Cleaner Ships, the committee that led the voter-approved 95% cruise ship reduction. Commissioner Sam Kaufman raised the possibility of formal mediation, while Commissioner Billy Wardlow questioned the wisdom of poking the private-sector bear of Pier B, which is likely to sue the city if it can’t welcome cruise ships to the pier it built for that reason.

On Oct. 10, five days after the city commission meeting, the Committee for Safer Cleaner Ships sent an update to its members, stating, “Commissioners Davila and Kaufman are both well-respected attorneys and we respect their suggestion. Our Committee has always shown our willingness to meet with anyone. Recently we’ve sat down with executives from Carnival Cruise Lines and Virgin Voyages to discuss the threats their large ships pose to our sensitive marine environment, and their obligations to act ethically with regard to the vote of our community.

“We would also gladly meet with representatives for Pier B Development Corporation, the Mark Walsh-controlled entity which leases Pier B from the State of Florida. While the City clearly possesses full legal authority to limit cruise ships at Pier B, nothing can prevent antagonistic lawsuits filed to harass and preoccupy the City. If we can work out an agreement that helps the City avoid such lawsuits, while codifying cruise limits supported by our community, we could support such an outcome.”

The compromise conversations started sounding vaguely familiar and prompted the Keys Weekly to return to its archives of cruise ship coverage. 

As far back as May 2020 — six months before 62% of voters approved the drastic reduction in ships and a year before the state legislature invalidated those voter initiatives — business owners and city commissioners were considering common ground and compromise.

Circling back

Here’s what people were saying in May 2020, back when the fledgling Safer Cleaner Ships Committee was still gathering the required petition signatures to have the cruise ship questions on the November 2020 ballot:

“I truly believe there is still a fighting chance for diplomacy and compromise,” downtown business owner and Tourist Development Council board member George Fernandez said in May 2020, when he suggested the city consider a “feasible three- to five-year, long-term plan that would include a gradual limitation in the number of port calls and passengers.” 

Fernandez also suggested 17 months ago that the city increase the required minimum stay for cruise ships to allow passengers time to visit and benefit more businesses. 

“Many passengers on average are only able to spend 3.1 hours on their shore visit, while research showed that an ideal nine-hour ship visit would increase passenger purchases by 50%,” Fernandez wrote in May 2020.

He proposed black-out days with no cruise ships to alleviate downtown crowding during peak tourism events such as New Year’s and Fantasy Fest and a gradual increase of per-passenger disembarkation fees paid by the cruise lines.

Finally, Fernandez emphasized, “We must hold all cruise ships accountable as necessary for water quality and their environmental impact by periodically evaluating management actions and validating quantitative models used to closely monitor and fine those culpable with punitive monetary repercussions to be paid to the City of Key West, and suspend their future port visitation status for a period of time.”

Commissioners also considered compromises

City commissioners back then also were willing to explore compromise.

“I’m excited that we can reimagine tourism,” Commissioner Mary Lou Hoover told the Keys Weekly on May 20, 2020, but said now is not the time to be limiting any sort of revenue coming to the city or its private businesses.

“Any changes would have to occur over a lengthy period of time to allow business owners to adjust their business plans,” Hoover said. “There are a lot of other things we’re going to have to deal with in the wake of this pandemic — suicide, substance abuse and physical abuse — and I don’t believe that taking people’s livelihoods away should be one of them.”

Commissioner Jimmy Weekley had agreed with a gradual implementation of any changes to the city’s cruise ship policies. 

“This discussion is long overdue and one we need to have,” Weekley said in May 2020. “I’ve only heard a few people say, ‘Let’s get rid of cruise ships completely.’ But any changes made need to be done gradually. Perhaps we should, in fact, be marketing to the smaller, more upscale cruise ships, but we need to fully understand the economic impacts of any decisions.”

Weekley said at the time, ”To my knowledge, the city has no control over what ships dock at the privately owned Pier B, which is owned by the Margaritaville Key West Resort & Marina (now Opal Key Resort & Marina). But there’s nothing to stop us from negotiating with the owners of Pier B to see what sort of agreements we can negotiate.” 

Mayor Teri Johnston declined to discuss her position on the issue in May 2020, before it came before the voters. 

“Our job is to educate our voting public on both sides of the issue,” Johnston said in May 2020. “Just like channel-widening, the height referendum and every other referendum that has come in front of us as elected officials, we are not allowed to take a side because we represent both sides of the issue, so we are educators.”

Johnston said in May 2020 that she was sitting down with both sides of the issue and trying to gather as much data as possible and to understand both sides of the issue.

“Our role is to provide facts so the public can make their own voting decision on this issue,” she said.

Five months later, in October 2020, a month before the election, Key West restaurateur Bill Lay wrote a letter to the editor at Keys Weekly, stating, “SCS members signed a petition to put these referenda on the ballot with no alternative plan in place (2,500 people). If it passes, the lawsuit will be filed against the city of Key West. … It would then become the responsibility of the city to defend the referenda position, not SCS. If Pier B wins the case … the payout would come from the city, not SCS.

“All of this is avoidable, by voting No No No you would stop any of this from happening. Then we can all sit down and negotiate some common-sense solutions that would help everyone without hurting any of our citizens and their families. … Let’s be part of the solution, not the problem,” Lay wrote.

But two months before that, 

around July 2020, shortly after 

Safer Cleaner Ships had submit-

ted their signatures to get the ship limits on the November ballot, Lay had met with representatives of Safer Cleaner Ships. 

“We asked them for a two-year 

stay of these limits, to give people time to get their ducks in a row,” Lay told the Keys Weekly. “Their answer was no. And when I asked one of the Safer Cleaner board members, ‘What do I tell people 

who are going to be out of work 

without cruise ships?” he told me, ‘Tell them to go be good at something else.’

“After that, any attempt to 

meet was to no avail,” Lay said. “My message since day 1 has been let’s sit down and figure this out.”

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Mandy Miles drops stuff, breaks things and falls down more than any adult should. She's married to a saintly — and handy — fisherman, and has been stringing words together in Key West since 1998.