A cruise ship docks in Key West pre-COVID. CONTRIBUTED

To the astonishment of most, but not all, a bill is being drafted in Tallahassee to dissolve the entity known as the City of Key West, transferring all assets, liabilities and revenues to Monroe County. It’s the ultimate state pre-emption.

Anyone who wonders how this sweeping move came to be need only look in the direction of the mayor, city commissioners and some city administrators. Last year, the commission shirked its duty as port administrators and allowed a malign group of agitators to dictate port policy. Safer Cleaner Ships (SCS), employed subterfuge, disinformation, falsehoods and emotionally charged invective to deceive Key West voters to approve drastic port restrictions. The effectiveness of their propaganda machine would have made Joseph Goebbels blush in admiration. The referenda that subsequently passed canceled 95% of scheduled cruise ships into Key West, effectively crippling the maritime infrastructure in our port and interdicting significant revenue to the city treasury. Rather than the “will of the people,” the referenda passage was the tyranny of the misinformed majority.  

If anyone believes that the State of Florida will allow the virtual closure of a commercial deep-water port, they are not paying attention. That aggression simply will not stand. Accordingly, the state passed legislation last summer that abolished the referenda ship restrictions. Obviously, the mayor, commission and administrators did not pay attention. Last summer, the SCS-driven tactic of writing ordinances to reinstate the restrictions was formalized by the commission, in defiance of the state legislature.  

More insidious was the fact that Mayor Teri Johnston arrogantly and rudely told Virgin Voyages executives that their environmentally state-of-the art ship would not be allowed in Key West because it is larger than the referenda size restrictions. Likewise, in a Zoom meeting, the city manager refused to consider a Memorandum of Agreement with Carnival Cruise Line that did not include the referenda restrictions. Their actions did not go unnoticed in Tallahassee.Officials in Tallahassee have either construed their actions as misconduct or, at worst, a breach of state law. Hence the abolishment legislation was drafted last week. Some day, in some hearing or courtroom, they may have to answer for their behavior.

In the meantime, the commission continues to take the ineffectual path of hiring expensive outside counsel to write the restrictive ordinances while contemporaneously pursuing a “mediated” agreement regarding cruise ship traffic. How can parties to the mediation have faith in the process when the city seeks to impose the ship restrictions via ordinance at the same time? I am one of the parties involved in the mediation and I believe the ordinance process is a betrayal of the mediation effort.  

There is a very simple solution at hand to the entire cruise ship fiasco, if only the commission will fully engage in their port management duties rather than continue to kowtow to SCS. The people of Key West deserve conscientious representation from their elected officials. It will take some courage and it will be interesting to see which commissioner, if any, steps forward in a leadership role.  

Will the state dissolve the City of Key West? Quite possible, but unlikely. However, the mayor, commissioners and city manager should take note of the state’s “shot across the bow.” Unheeded warnings are often followed by a salvo.

John E. Wells
Ships’ Agent, retired