City clerk Silvia Gransee, right, swears in Key Colony Beach city commissioner Thomas DiFransico following his unanimous appointment on Nov. 16. ALEX RICKERT/Keys Weekly

In a move that seemed highly unlikely before that morning, the Key Colony Beach City Commission will avoid a special election to fill former Mayor Patti Trefry’s vacant seat, unanimously appointing retired engineer Thomas DiFransico at its Nov. 16 meeting.

Seating DiFransico – who will serve until the expiration of Trefry’s original term in November 2024, at which time he may seek re-election – took just a single 4-0 vote, following statements from candidates Joseph Schmidt, Fred Swanson, John Dalton, Patricia Conkling Benton, Douglas Colonell and Mario Di Gennaro. 

With more than seven years of experience with the city’s utility board, code enforcement and planning and zoning, DiFransico said he looked to resolve “an impasse in our community, having to do with a root cause of ineffective communications that have fostered a lack of trust and possibly disbelief. … The first step of that is resolving the issue of City Hall.”

While most other candidates spoke of their qualifications and ability to aid the city, Schmidt used his address to sharply criticize the commission, announcing he would withdraw his application.

“The ones who put you in your seat can get you out,” he said, adding his withdrawal was made in order to chair a committee to recall Mayor Pro Tem Beth Ramsay-Vickrey and Secretary/Treasurer Tom Harding. “We all truly hope that is not necessary. We ask that you please take this opportunity by stepping down to help heal the community.”

Following short comments from commissioners Freddie Foster and Joey Raspe encouraging all applicants to consider other positions on the city’s various committees and advisory boards, Ramsay-Vickrey delivered an extensive statement before immediately nominating DiFransico, who was seated with a 4-0 vote.

“It comes down to only one candidate, because only one candidate here is actively engaged and involved in our communities and is a community volunteer,” she said, adding that she “had no idea what (DiFransico)’s position is on City Hall, because that’s not what we’re voting on.”

“Both commissioners Foster and Raspe have said, rightfully so, the importance of our advisory boards and their role in moving leaders into this position,” she continued. “Only one candidate has that experience.”

The moment of unity came as a surprise to many in attendance, with the commission divided 2-2 on a number of critical ongoing issues over the last year. In another statement following the vote, Ramsay-Vickrey said the appointment “has proven that (the commission) can, and will, continue to work as a whole.” Nonetheless, the accelerated process prompted visible reactions from Foster and Raspe, the other candidates, and residents in attendance, several of whom told the Weekly they were expecting further discussion and nominations for additional candidates.

The new-look KCB City Commission. From left: Joey Raspe, Thomas DiFransico, Mayor Pro Tem Beth Ramsay-Vickrey, Secretary/Treasurer Tom Harding, Freddie Foster. ALEX RICKERT/Keys Weekly

City Hall divide flares as referendum case preps for trial

The session opened with an address from Tony Rosabal, owner and principal of LIVS Associates, the firm contracted to design KCB’s new city hall. While Rosabal said he “(stood) nothing to gain from this point forward” as his firm’s services are already paid for, he spoke strongly in favor of the project as currently proposed. Though the city has yet to seek current bids from contractors for renovations of the existing City Hall footprint, Rosabal said he estimated the cost of such repairs at roughly $2 million to $5 million, depending on the extent of the area to be upgraded, but that the renovated space would “still be too small” to house all of the city’s staff, police department and post office.

“It doesn’t make sense to spend $3 to $5 million to repair a building that will essentially be too small the day of the groundbreaking,” he concluded.

Foster and Raspe would continue to square off throughout the rest of the meeting with Ramsay-Vickrey, who maintained that the commission should refrain from discussing matters concerning the old hall, as it is the subject of active litigation.

Viewing the issue as a separate item, the pair repeated their requests to reopen the Marble Hall portion of the old building, which has seen use by the city since Hurricane Irma. Though the storm had caused voids under the floors of other portions of the old hall, which Rosabal said “could collapse at any moment,” the Marble Hall area avoided the bulk of the damage, prompting Foster to ask for a safety inspection prior to reopening of this portion of the building for commission meetings and community events. 

Tensions boiled over during the commissioners’ closing comments, when Raspe made a strong push to reopen the hall, which he said was “probably one of the safest buildings in the city” and could provide a valuable community space while decreasing reliance on the Key Colony Inn. DiFransico joined Raspe, adding above all that greater communication was needed with residents regarding the features of the new hall and possibilities for use of at least a portion of the existing building. 

Ramsay-Vickrey’s repeated attempts to end the conversation due to legal concerns led Foster to raise a point of order, asking attorney Roget Bryan, standing in for City Attorney Dirk Smits, to referee the discussion.

“That subject matter, which is your old city hall, is the underlying issue in litigation,” Bryan said. “I would strongly urge you to tread very carefully or not wade into this topic.

“That does not mean that forward thinking, how you get to a place of resolution and community consensus and direction – those are all very valid questions and do need to be addressed. The procedural posture right now, and your litigation posture, this is not the right time for that discussion.”

Following an amended complaint from attorney Matthew Hutchinson on behalf of resident Laurie Swanson, as well as an amended motion to dismiss the case filed by the city, after a Sept. 21 hearing, the case that will decide the validity of residents’ petitions for a referendum vote on a new city hall is currently slated for trial. Unless the two sides reach a settlement, the projected trial date, set in a scheduling order by Judge Mark Jones, is July 2024. 

The crux of the case, as outlined by Jones in September, will hinge on whether Key Colony’s decision to award the $8.375 million contract to Hands On Builders is viewed as a legislative action, subject to challenge via referendum per KCB’s code, or a discretionary administrative decision, which does not appear to be.

In Other News:

  • Officially announced via a proclamation presented to his wife Kitty, KCB will celebrate every Oct. 2 as Ron Sutton Day, in honor of the late commissioner who passed earlier this year.
  • City Administrator Dave Turner announced that donations for the city’s redesigned and upgraded pickleball facilities already total more than $100,000. With dissent among the commission over the installation of a permanent sign to honor high-dollar donors, the issue will be revisited at a future commission meeting.
  • Building assistant Karl Bursa provided an update on the city’s recent Community Rating System (CRS) verification visit, used to establish flood insurance discounts for residents. With lower scores equaling higher discounts via the program, which incentivizes community floodplain management practices, Bursa said he was hopeful the city’s rating would drop from a 7 to a 5 or 4, reflecting at a minimum an additional 10% in premium discounts that should total more than $417,000 in savings throughout the city.
Alex Rickert made the perfectly natural career progression from dolphin trainer to newspaper editor in 2021 after freelancing for Keys Weekly while working full time at Dolphin Research Center. A resident of Marathon since 2015, he fell in love with the Florida Keys community by helping multiple organizations and friends rebuild in the wake of Hurricane Irma. An avid runner, actor, and spearfisherman, he spends as much of his time outside of work on or under the sea having civil disagreements with sharks.