The city of Key West still needs a lawyer to help draft — and then defend — its cruise ship limitations when they’re challenged in court.

At their meeting on Sept. 14, the city commission directed City Attorney Shawn Smith to pursue negotiations with attorney Joe Jacquot, who has worked for the Safer Cleaner Ships Committee for more than a year and is the committee’s first choice to represent the city.

Smith previously questioned the wisdom of hiring an attorney with ties to SCS, “who has an agenda in place, or an idea in place,” but he said on Tuesday that he would contact Jacquot the following day.

“It doesn’t matter who you hire; I will work with them,” Smith said, adding that he had spoken on Sept. 13 with Jacquot, who had said, “I have to do a conflict check.”

Every attorney completes such a conflict check before they can agree to represent a client. Earlier this month, Smith had recommended the Radey Law Firm for the cruise ship representation.

“Radey did not have a conflict, but they would not represent this commission after what was done to them,” Smith said at Tuesday’s meeting, referring to a list of 15 probing questions Mayor Teri Johnston had sent to Radey Law Firm on behalf of SCS in an attempt to discern any conflicts of interest.

Commissioner Sam Kaufman, an attorney, said he supports the hiring of Jacquot, while others wanted to know more about his potential conflicts and whether Jacquot would be asked the same questions that were posed to Radey Law Firm.

Kaufman pointed out that conflict checks are an ethical responsibility of every lawyer and would be part of any contract negotiations with Jacquot. “If he has a conflict, it stops right there, but let’s remember, there aren’t any other firms in the queue right now.”

Johnston said Jacquot should still be fully vetted, and should appear before the commission to answer questions.

But Commissioner Greg Davila, also an attorney, was reluctant to require that.

“Any attorney with a successful firm would not subject themselves to that. There’s easier ways and other cases. I don’t know any attorney who would subject themselves to that. We don’t want people coming here and dancing for us, and if they do, they’re not who we want.”

Smith backed up Davila’s concerns, saying, “I personally invited Mr. Jacquot to come down here tonight. I told him the commissioners want to hear from you. He said, ‘I’m not coming down, no way.’”

Smith also reminded the commission that he has the authority to hire any attorney he chooses, “but I have not done that.” He said he has included the commissioners in the process because of the importance of the issue.

Smith’s comments came after Arlo Haskell, treasurer of Safer Cleaner Ships, spoke in support of Jacquot, then added, “I think the commission should take the responsibility of hiring outside counsel. You have earned the trust of the public.”

Commissioner Clayton Lopez took exception to the suggestion that the commission, not the city attorney, hire the attorney.

“This is being played out more transparently than anything else. I believe that overriding the city attorney is undermining his authority. We’re the ones who hire the people to do these jobs,” Lopez said, adding that SCS had opposed the Radey Law Firm because they had previously represented the bar pilots, who are in favor of cruise ships in Key West. 

“That firm represented the bar pilots against the cruise industry,” Lopez said. “So we’ve turned down firms for having potential bias. Now we have someone who’s good with you — because he’s biased on your side? You can’t have it both ways.”

Former city commissioner Margaret Romero agreed, saying during the public comment period, “This city is supposed to be a city manager government, and we want to leave the choosing of an attorney to elected officials? The public comments called for transparency, ethics and integrity, all of which have always been considered by our city attorney. And at least half of those comments that were submitted prior to this meeting came from people who don’t have addresses in this city. Shawn Smith has never done anything to impugn transparency, ethics and integrity. It seems we have a small group of people who are very loud at getting what they want.”

Johnston replied, “This isn’t a few loud voices; this is a majority. Who better to represent the will of the people than the one who worked with the group that got out this percentage of the vote? We’ll be a year ahead of the game by going with a firm that already knows the intricacies of this issue.”

Smith spoke again.

“There has been a great deal of misunderstanding and misinformation on this topic,” he said after agreeing to contact Jacquot. “There has never been any intention, despite the emails you have all received, to hire anybody that you don’t want.

“I take my integrity seriously and I have been vilified throughout this process because they (Safer Cleaner Ships) don’t like me. I don’t care, I really don’t. My job is to represent you, nobody else but you, the city commission. If you tell me to do something, and it’s legal, I will do it. I’ll call Mr. Jacquot tomorrow. I spoke to him yesterday afternoon, and he told me he has to do a conflict check.”

Other city news

  • City officials moved forward on building workforce housing on the last 3.2 acres at 

Truman Waterfront. The commission agreed to hold a voter referendum on Jan. 18, 2022, asking voters to allow the city to lease that land to the entity that will build the housing for up to 99 years. Officials have heard repeatedly from affordable housing experts that no developer will touch a project that does not include long-term rights to the land, and city law prohibits any leases of city property for longer than 10 or 20 years without voter approval. 

  • Commissioners approved a development plan that will replace the former Hospice/VNA 

commercial building at 1319 William St. with six non-transient, single-family homes.

The homes will share a driveway that exits onto Royal Street, planner Owen Trepanier said.

The new homes will be built behind two existing non-transient rental units on the site, he said, adding that the project will include “massive landscaping” and will retain the poinciana and gumbo limbo trees that are on site. 

To fulfill the affordable housing requirement attached to new construction, Trepanier said, the property will build two units of median-income, deed-restricted, rental housing on Von Phister Street, where he owns another property. That property will be demolished and two new units built, Trepanier said.

If you would like to have the Weekly delivered to your mailbox or inbox along with our daily news blast, please subscribe here.

Mandy Miles drops stuff, breaks things and falls down more than any adult should. She's married to a saintly — and handy — fisherman, and has been stringing words together in Key West since 1998.