A cruise ship is visible in Key West from Fort Zachary Taylor State Park, pre-pandemic. CONTRIBUTED

The “windjammers” were in full force at the City Commission meeting on Oct. 5.  There was so much warm air blowing from the dais, Captain G.R. Steadman, my grandfather and original master of the Schooner Western Union, could have sailed the old cable repair ship right up White Street.

Lots of words, little said.

Nevertheless, two important revelations regarding the cruise ship controversy were brought to the forefront at that meeting. First, credible allegations of violation of Florida state law by the mayor and city officials were entered into the public record via my letter to the commission. Let the record show those officials have been actively imposing the ship restrictions set forth in last November’s referenda, violating state law 311.25, which invalidated those same referenda.  State officials have been notified of these unlawful actions by the City of Key West.  

Secondly, it appears that at least some of the commissioners have finally recognized that the referenda, written by Safer Cleaner Ships (SCS), will never stand up in a court of law.  Nor will the excessive restrictions, driven by deceptive arguments, withstand additional legislative correction from Tallahassee. The state of Florida will simply not allow a local government to virtually shut down 95% of ship traffic in an important deep water port. 

The legislation that overturned the referenda last summer was a second chance for the city commissioners to resume their duties as a Port Authority, which they had consigned to SCS.  

During discussion of the city attorney’s report, Commissioner Sam Kaufman, to his credit, spoke of the need to bring all “stakeholders” to the table to work out a negotiated or mediated agreement about cruise ship traffic in Key West.  Predictably, the mayor remained quiet on the efficacy of a mediated settlement — another missed opportunity for her to finally take a meaningful leadership role.  

I endorse the premise of a negotiated settlement. In July, I urged the commission to form just such a citizens’ working group on cruise ship tourism that would consider input from all parties.  That panel must include the local maritime community, which has been excluded from the conversation. Therefore, I am open to participating in a process to sort out a solution acceptable to all parties. I merely ask for the following prerequisites:

  1. Safer Cleaner Ships must publicly recognize that their two referenda detailing passenger/crew number restrictions are unsustainable as written.  Their leaders should declare they are open to reasonable compromise. 
  2. The mayor and city manager must reverse their current unlawful policy of application of the referenda restrictions to cruise lines wishing to call on Key West in the interim, then communicate that reversal to those companies.  
  3. The mayor, commission and SCS should publicly encourage Key Westers to welcome all tourists, regardless of how they arrive on the island. Ugly demonstrations against any tourist group, especially those that include children and elders, will sully the image of Key West to all potential visitors.

A negotiated/mediated settlement may be the last best way out of the cruise ship referendum debacle – the city could avoid exorbitant legal fees, further state pre-emption and the probability of a bankrupting court ruling. The maritime community could return to what it does best – attend to the important cruise ship industry in Florida by assisting the maritime trade that has been an important part of Key West’s tourism economy for decades.

The Western Union may never sail the Windward Passage again, but there is always White Street.

John E, Wells Jr.

Ships’ Agent