A cruise ship docks, pre-pandemic, at the privately owned Pier B in Key West. LARRY BLACKBURN/Keys Weekly

After nearly four hours of public input and discussion, Key West officials voted to support the wishes of Safer Cleaner Ships and shoot down a proposal from the owners of Pier B cruise ship dock that would have placed some limits on the size and number of ships where no limits currently exist.

With Tuesday night’s denial of the proposal, the city’s longstanding contract with Pier B remains in effect and nothing changes. Pier B can bring in up to seven ships per week of any size, including more than one ship per day, according to the existing agreement.  

Commissioners Clayton Lopez and Billy Wardlow were in favor of approving the new proposal, reminding their colleagues that the current contract contains no limits, and at least the new proposal included a $1-per-passenger donation to help coral reef restoration.

“This is at least better than what was in place before,” Lopez said. “This is far from what I’d like to see, but I don’t know if we’re going to get another bite at the apple.”

Commissioner Jimmy Weekley expressed surprise and disappointment that the multimillion-dollar business of Pier B didn’t exhibit more of a “good-neighbor policy” and offer more concessions to appease the city and Safer Cleaner Ships.

Commissioner Sam Kaufman said he, too, wanted to see more of a good-neighbor approach from Pier B owner Mark Walsh. “Some of us thought we’d have more success in mediation and the negotiations,” Kaufman said. “I believed Pier B would give up more than they would.”

Kaufman ultimately moved to deny the proposal. “Let’s let some time pass; let them come to us,” Kaufman said.

But City Attorney Shawn Smith, outside counsel Ed Pozzuoli and an attorney for Pier B, Frank Zacherl, all cautioned the commission that Walsh and Pier B don’t have to do anything and have no incentive to come back to the city’s negotiating table. They don’t have to renegotiate. They didn’t have to negotiate the first time or offer any concessions, Pozzuoli said.

“If you don’t approve this tonight, the status quo will remain in effect. You’ll simply be left with the existing agreement exactly where you found it as it is today,” Pozzuoli said, after more than 10 speakers personally attacked Smith and Pozzuoli and called for Smith’s resignation. “This proposal at least creates limits that did not exist before. Pier B came to the table. This was the best we could do, so we presented it for your consideration. Negotiation requires two hands to clap. There’s a lot of armchair attorneys out there tonight. This agreement at least gives Mote Marine coral reef donations and raises the disembarkation fees that will provide more money to the city. I appreciate all the emotion shown here tonight; it’s democracy at work. But in the end there’s a contract in place, the existing agreement. This new proposed agreement provides what the existing agreement does not.”

Dozens of people spoke in support of Safer Cleaner Ships and urged the commission to vote on the proposal, but many seemed to think the new proposal would replace the existing one that has been in effect since 1994, when it was drafted by the late attorney Jim Hendrick on behalf of Pier B. 

“This so-called agreement is outrageous,” Roger Kostmayer told the commission. “I’m asking politely that you vote no. The city attorneys sabotaged your instructions at every step.”

Mark Schulte said, “The proposed agreement, in my opinion, is a shameful power grab by Mark Walsh (owner of Pier B). … Our welfare must not be controlled by campaign contributions.” He then called on the city attorney and Walsh to resign.

Former city commissioner Margaret Romero, however, had some harsh words and questions for Safer Cleaner Ships and the commissioners.

“Why are you elected officials continuing to accommodate SCS?” Romero said. “Why does SCS cloak itself as a 501(c)4? Why hide their contributors and where money is spent? Yet they accuse others of dark money? Another elephant in the room is, are people really local residents that support SCS activities? Why didn’t SCS do their homework and understand the city’s financial numbers, existing contracts and various laws pertaining to ports before putting out their disingenuous information – or was that a part of a plan?”

When asked by commissioners about the legal memo Safer Cleaner Ships had submitted last week, claiming the city never authorized cruise ship operations at the modern-day Pier B, which was expanded in 1999, Pozzuoli told the commission, “I don’t put a lot of merit in that legal argument.”

The commission did not discuss the legal memo by attorneys Linda Wheeler and Ralf Brookes any further.

In an emailed response to that memo, Commissioner Mary Lou Hoover told Safer Cleaner Ships its legal memo contains “nothing new,” and that the city’s approval of the Pier B expansion was part of the permitting process. 

“While I understand you don’t want any cruise ships coming to Key West, it is still my belief that the city has no control over Pier B and its operations,” Hoover writes. “Food for thought. If SCS believed that the agreement between Pier B and the city was invalid or void, why go through all the trouble and expense of three referendums? Why not just have a judge set aside the agreement? And if the agreement never existed, why did the city take money from Pier B to the tune of $25 million? I have tallied your request to me as a Vote No on item 21.”

Hoover did vote no on the new proposal Tuesday evening after asking whether the attorneys thought there was room for further negotiations on the part of Pier B. Smith and Pozzuoli deferred to Pier B’s attorney, Bart Smith, but no answer was provided.

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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.