City Hall was standing-room-only for Monday’s cruise ship meeting. MANDY MILES/Keys Weekly

Key West’s city officials want out of their 27-year marriage to cruise ships and to the privately owned Pier B dock. That much was clear from the July 12 city commission discussion, although no votes were taken. 

“Can we please give the cruise ships direction that they’re not welcome, at least at our two ports?” Commissioner Jimmy Weekley asked City Manager Patti McLauchlin.

McLauchlin also said, in answer to a question from Commissioner Billy Wardlow, that no smaller cruise ships have yet expressed any interest in coming to Key West.

Despite a state law that voided the island’s voter referendum to drastically reduce the city’s cruise ship calls,  the city still is planning a workaround to refuse big ships at the two piers it operates, Mallory and Outer Mole. The state law voided the referendum because it was passed by the voters, and not by a government body. If, instead, the city commission passes ordinances that mirror the referendum limits, then the city can turn away ships — unless and until the legislature decides to override that move in its next session, City Attorney Shawn Smith told the commisioners.

The real concern and contention is the city’s contract with the privately owned Pier B, located behind Opal Key Resort, which for more than 20 years has given the city 25% of all cruise ship revenues each year, totaling about $27 million. That contract renews every 10 years unless both sides agree to end it, Smith told the commission.

Mayor Teri Johnston — and members of the Committee for Safer Cleaner Ships that spearheaded the referendum — were adamant that any restrictions apply to all cruise piers, and not just the two city-run ones.

Johnston also was appalled at the contract the city signed nearly 30 years ago.

“There’s got to be a way to modify that agreement,” Johnston said. “How do we get out of that?” she asked attorney Smith. 

“We pay,” Smith answered. 

Smith also repeatedly warned the commission of his concerns about including Pier B in any restrictions: Any attempt to limit business at Pier B will lead to a lawsuit like the city has never seen before, he said.

“The lawsuit we’ll face is Duck Tours on steroids,” Smith told the commission, referring to the $8 million settlement the city had to pay in the early 2000s to a Duck Tours company, after a court decided the city had passed regulations that put the company out of business while granting a tour monopoly to another company. “The agreement you have with Pier B is markedly different from the other operations. My job is to protect you and the city from liability, and I’ll tell you, I think Pier B sues us. I don’t think it’s a threat; I think it’s legitimate and I think it will be a breach of contract claim and an interstate commerce claim.”

Attorney Bart Smith, representing the owners of Pier B, read a history of the city’s contract with Pier B and told the commission, “All we’ve ever done is exactly what the city wanted us to do and we hope and expect the city to continue to honor the agreement. We are willing to meet to discuss anything.”

Johnston and Weekley directed Smith, despite the lawsuit warnings, to do some research, hire outside specialists if necessary, and find a way out. ”We want something done. Just find a way of doing it,” Weekley told Smith.

“The problem I keep coming back to, is we’ve taken the benefit of that agreement for nearly 30 years and that’s a problem,” Smith said, but agreed to research the matter and find a specialist.

The Safer Cleaner Ships Committee applauded the commission’s resolve and vowed to help draft the new ordinances.

Stay tuned.

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.