Four of seven Key West lawmakers voted Wednesday to fire the city’s top official in one of the most confrontational city meetings in recent memory that packed city hall. But wait, there’s more. 

The two city commissioners who voted with Mayor Teri Johnston to support city manager Al Childress have scheduled a special meeting to rehire him on Aug. 26, which is after the primary election, when at least two new faces will take their seats on the commission.

The four votes to terminate Childress’s contract came from Commissioners Lissette Carey, Clayton Lopez, Billy Wardlow and Jimmy Weekley. Commissioners Mary Lou Hoover and Sam Kaufman, plus the mayor, voted against the firing in  support of Childress and his continued leadership.

Childress supporters say firing stems from city attorney protecting his brother

In addition to Hoover, Johnston and Kaufman, supporters of Childress packed city hall, where a dozen or so residents spoke, defending Childress and criticizing the purported “old boys club” in the city wherein certain people give and receive preferential treatment while other insiders protect them. 

Childress’s attorney, Henry Ferro, participated in the meeting via Zoom, Police Chief Sean Brandenburg attended in person with several police officers, who submitted a letter of full-throated support for the city manager..

Several members of the public who spoke in support of Childress, who was hired in April 2023 with a four-year contract, accused Commissioners Weekley and Carey of conspiring behind the scenes via text messages with city attorney Ron Ramsingh to oust Childress on June 21, the same day Childress formally reprimanded the city’s chief building official, Raj Ramsingh, who is the city attorney’s brother. The text messages were acquired through public record requests and disseminated by Childress’s supporters on Tuesday, June 25.

“Two of the three reasons I was given by the city attorney about why there was a move to terminate Mr. Childress involved the chief building official, his brother,” Commissioner Kaufman said during the meeting on Wednesday, June 26. 

Mayor Johnston added, “The text messages are nothing new. The city attorney chooses which four commissioners he contacts and informs. Four commissioners want to replace Al, and three of them are leaving office.”

State Attorney Dennis Ward was at the meeting at city hall due to questions of whether the text messages between Ron Ramsingh and Commissioners Carey and Weekley could violate the state’s Sunshine Laws, which prohibit private communication between public officials about matters that will come to a vote. No text messages were sent directly between Weekley and Carey. Rather the city attorney had separate text conversations with each of them. But Mayor Johnston pointed out that Ron Ramsingh did not send the same messages to all seven lawmakers, and instead singled out a chosen few, in effect acting as a go-between to facilitate plans to fire Childress, Johnston said.

Supporters say attorney & his brother, the building official, prompted firing

Chief Building Official Raj Ramsingh’s role in the building department was recently criticized  in a review by planning consultants from the Corradino Group. The review, which the city commission unanimously approved in October 2023, cost the city $50,000, and was commissioned to explore best practices for the city’s planning and building departments amid significant friction between two departments’ directors.

The Corradino Group’s report reveals questionable practices by Raj Ramsingh, who reportedly approved scores of development applications without review or approval from the planning department, which is contrary to the city’s land development regulations, the report states.

The 55-page report cites four specific cases as examples, but recommends further review of other approvals by the building department. The four cases cited refer to: 1701 Ashby St., owned by the Steven M. Warshawsky revocable living trust; 3528 Eagle Ave., owned by Antonio Estenoz III and Alana Estenoz; and 419 Southard St. and 534 Duval St., which appear to be the same building, a combination of retail and residential space on the corner of Southard and Duval streets, according to Monroe County property records. That building is owned by a corporation called 534 Duval LLC, which lists Joseph Cohen as the registered agent for that property and several others in downtown Key West.

According to the Corradino report, on Eagle Avenue, the building department approved a variance, or exception to the law, after the planning department had denied the same variance. On Southard Street, the building department did not require a development application for a proposed project. On Duval Street, the building department approved the creation of 10 residential rooms “outside of the building permit allocation system,” and on Ashby Street, the building department “ignored a recommendation by the planning department that a variance was needed,” the report states.

“The issues with Mr. Childress have to do with our city attorney and his brother,” Mayor Johnston said. “The Corradino report was highly critical of our chief building official. I’m embarrassed by our city attorney and the way we’ve handled this.”

Henry Ferro, Childress’s attorney, also minced no words, saying, “What’s going on here is an attempt by Mr. Ramsingh to protect his brother after a reprimand was made.”

Childress’ opponents cite poor communication & “authoritarian” style

After initially declining to state their reasons for firing Childress, the four commissioners who voted against him, along with City Attorney Ron Ramsingh, later offered other reasons for the termination.

“This has never been about the building official for me,” Commissioner Clayton Lopez said. “How can you fix a problem when the city manager refuses to work with the city attorney or accept his advice? He told me he’d work on that, but I’ve seen no improvement. Department heads have also told me they’re not allowed to talk to the commissioners.”

At the meeting, Commissioner Carey, who has been critical of Childress at past commission meetings and in her April evaluation of him, pointed to Childress’s lack of communication with her about things happening in her district that she has learned from social media rather than from the city manager. “And after my one-year evaluation of him, Mr. Childress did not pick up the phone to see how the situation could be remedied.”

“You want to talk about transparency? Our budget workshops have been closed to the public for the past two rounds,” Carey said, adding that the Corradino report was not independent, as the company has done past work for the city’s planning department. 

In response to some speakers from the public, who questioned why no one was there to speak in favor of the firing, Carey said, “Where’s the other side? They’re at work. And I’ll do everything I can do to represent the other side — the working people who can’t be here in the middle of the day.”

Mayor Johnston then reminded Carey that Carey had set the time of the meeting.

Commissioner Billy Wardlow said he had lost confidence in the city manager.

Then, City Attorney Ron Ramsingh read a lengthy statement, outlining  problems with the city manager, using words like “authoritarian” and a “substandard city manager.”

Ramsingh said Childress has purposely excluded the attorney from meetings with commissioners and other employees. He prohibited city employees from speaking with commissioners without his permission, Ramsingh said, adding that he had tried to work with Childress and advise him about the way Key West works.

“You can’t manage with a bulldozer in this town, but Mr. Chidress does not subscribe to this policy,” Ramsingh said. “There’s a culture of intimidation among managers and employees. He has a temper and has shouted at me.”

He also said Childress directed assistant city manager, Todd Stoughton, to change the reason for his resignation, which was submitted last week. The original letter cited irreconcilable differences with the city manager, but, Ramsingh said, Childress told Stoughton to change the reason to him wanting to spend more time with family.

What’s next?

Following Ramsingh’s statement, Childress’s attorney, Henry Ferro, said. “Mr. Ramsingh obviously has a personal vendetta against Mr. Childress. He has decided he’s going to take out  the city manager, so we’ll take this up in court next. I feel badly for the people of Key West who have to endure the mafioso style of government enacted by Mr. Ron Ramsingh and his brother.”

Commissioner Mary Lou Hoover called the whole situation a “tragedy,” saying, “I hope we prevail on the side of letting this man finish what we hired him to do.”

In the end, that was not the case. The commission voted to terminate Childress’s contract, which will cost the city more than $100,000. His contract states he is entitled to 20 weeks of severance, plus benefits, including unused vacation pay. 

Childress’s lawyer, Ferro, also told the commission that Childress has filed complaints of wrongdoing regarding the building official and his termination with the state attorney’s office, the governor’s office, the Florida Commission on Ethics and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

But Childress told the Keys Weekly Wednesday night that he would like to remain in the role if he is rehired at the special meeting on Aug. 26, when at least two new faces are seated on the commission dais.

During the vote to terminate his contract, Commissioner Carey said that former assistant city manager Todd Stoughton has agreed to come back in the interim to fill the position until a permanent replacement is chosen. 

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.