As of press time on June 26, the Key West City Commission was holding a special meeting to decide whether to fire City Manager Al Childress, which requires four votes of the seven elected officials.

Because the commission doesn’t have a legal reason, or cause, to fire Childress, the termination of his four-year contract will cost the city $93,000 for 20 weeks of severance, which his contract stipulates.

Childress has told the Keys Weekly that a report he commissioned to review ongoing tension and disagreement between the city’s building and planning departments prompted some city commissioners to call for his termination.

Childress said the report is critical of Key West’s chief building official, Raj Ramsingh, who is  the brother of city attorney Ron Ramsingh. 

The Corradino Group planning consultants reviewed the city’s development process and procedures and found circumstances it labels “unusual,” given the building department’s and Raj Ramsingh’s involvement in the early aspects of planning, approvals and permitting that in most cases should fall under the purview of the city’s planning department.

“Also unusual is that when the building department receives an application, it does not automatically send those applications to be reviewed by or for zoning, historic preservation or landscaping  — which fall under the planning department.

“It is wrong that many permits are not being reviewed or inspected for these issues, as things can be built that do not conform to the code or were not approved through the proper channels,” the report states.

It further concludes that Key West’s building department, under Raj Ramsingh, has been misinterpreting the city’s code of ordinances and that the planning department, not the building department, is charged with interpreting the city’s development regulations, while the building department is charged with ensuring compliance with building codes.

In other words, the planning department, which is helmed by Planning Director Katie Halloran, is in charge of reviewing development and construction applications, and deciding whether they conform to the city’s regulations. After any changes to the plans and approvals, the building department is responsible for making sure the state’s building codes are followed during the work.

“Nothing in state law gives a building official authority over a land development regulation or zoning code. Zoning is not construction,” the report states.

The Corradino Group also reviewed the number of development applications that have been sent by the building department to the planning department for review and approvals. 

The report states the number of planning reviews dropped 70% between 2021 and 2022 and 83% between 2021 and 2023. “This year, 2023-2034, the planning department is on pace to receive 141 permit reviews out of about 4,000 permit applications — an 86% drop from 2021.

“Key West’s process, in practice, places the chief building official in charge of the land development regulations. This is highly unusual,” the report states, adding that the planning department has accused the building department of allowing things to be built that do not conform to the city’s development regulations.

It further singles out four specific cases, involving four Key West properties — 1701 Ashby St., 3528 Eagle Ave., 419 Southard St. and 534 Duval St.

On Eagle Avenue, the building department approved a variance, or exception to the law, that the planning department had previously denied. On Southard Street, the building department did not require a development application for the proposed project.

Assistant city manager Todd Stoughton, in answering questions about the report posed by the Keys Weekly, acknowledged that the building department’s involvement in the projects could have led to permits being improperly issued. 

“There are examples given that suggest this has happened, which are being reviewed to

ensure there are no remaining, non-complying conditions on each approved permit,” Stoughton wrote to the Keys Weekly.  “As per the report, the city is reviewing internal policies and will update policy and user parameters.”

Does this overlap with city managerl termination?

Childress has told the Keys Weekly he believes the move to terminate his contract stems largely from the Corradino Group’s report and Childress’ desire to properly enforce the city’s laws, despite opposition from some who support a less stringent interpretation of development rules for some individuals. 

The question of city attorney Ron Ramsingh’s relationship with the chief building official, his brother, Raj Ramsingh, has prompted the attorney to hire an independent lawyer to review the actions of city officials and oversee today’s meeting, where the termination of Childress will require the votes of four commissioners.

Attorney Ron Ramsingh told the Keys Weekly on June 26, two hours before the special commission meeting, “A critical function of my job is to advise the city commission through their individual members on the content of the law, the … effect on the community, and many other aspects. … Regarding the substance, or perceived lack thereof for terminating the city manager’s contract, there is a difference between ‘reasons’ (which we all have as human beings) and ‘cause,’ which is … contractual and for which the city manager signed and therefore acknowledged. This is the same language in all contracts for charter officials, including my own. This is currently poised as a no-cause termination. Because the city manager has retained counsel and is actively threatening a lawsuit, it would be inappropriate for me or anyone else on the dais to comment on the reasons, or perhaps even cause. But suffice it to say that I have lots to say and will opine when legally advisable to do so. I sincerely sympathize with the cry for information on this topic. However, my primary objective is to protect the city’s interests and assist in carrying out the lawful will of the majority of the city commission. This issue is no different.”

Childress said last week the four votes would likely come from Commissioners Lissette Carey, Jimmy Weekley, Billy Wardlow and Clayton Lopez. All of those commissioners, except for Carey, have reached term limits and are leaving office in two to four months.

Carey told the Weekly that it is her hope that assistant city manager Stoughton would step into the role until a new manager is hired. Stoughton resigned last week, but has indicated to some commissioners that he would serve, only on an interim basis as city manager, if the vote to terminate Childress takes place.

Mandy Miles
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.