Key West residents seek answers after DeSantis overturns voters' decision to limit cruise ships

“Here we see that even when you do vote, it can be thrown out. That is fundamentally, as an American, discouraging.”

click to enlarge Key West residents seek answers after DeSantis overturns voters' decision to limit cruise ships
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Key West residents will have a chance next week to say how the island community should respond after Gov. Ron DeSantis signed legislation late Tuesday that overturned a local vote limiting cruise ship operations at the city’s port.

The City Commission quickly scheduled a special meeting for July 6 after DeSantis signed a contentious transportation bill (SB 1194) that included targeting the Key West vote. The new law prohibits local ballot initiatives that restrict maritime commerce involving such things as vessel sizes and points of origin.

“The Commission will hear from the legal department and explore the best way to move forward,” the city said on its website.

Key West voters in November approved three ballot initiatives that combined to limit the sizes of cruise ships and the number of passengers allowed to visit the city daily. Each referendum drew at least 60 percent support.

Arlo Haskell, treasurer of the Key West Committee for Safer, Cleaner Ships, which pushed the referendums, said his group is exploring its options, which could include going to court.

“It seems like there's less and less respect for the democratic process. Things like voting are being made more difficult in many parts of the country,” Haskell said. “Here we see that even when you do vote, it can be thrown out. That is fundamentally, as an American, discouraging.”

The transportation bill, among 94 measures that DeSantis signed into law late Tuesday, was approved in the  final days of the 2021 legislative session. The port issue was tacked onto a wide-ranging transportation package that was approved 21-17 in the Senate and 75-40 in the House.

Rep. Jim Mooney, an Islamorada Republican who represents the Keys, argued against the proposal, contending cruise ships cause water turbidity that is bad for fishing and the ecosystem.

“It is my job to protect the ecosystem in the Florida Keys, and that’s what I am going to do,” Mooney said April 28 during a House floor debate.

But supporters of the bill argued Key West residents are trying to make the community more exclusive and a destination for wealthy people, rather than being motivated by environmental concerns.

In March, Rep. Spencer Roach, a North Fort Myers Republican who was a key supporter of overturning the Key West vote, tweeted that the city should not get a share of federal coronavirus funds heading to seaports because of the referendum.

“Gov asked us to send $260 million of fed stimulus to FL seaports hit hard by loss of cruise ship industry,” Roach tweeted. “I urge my colleagues to vote against any funds for jurisdictions that have banned cruise ships, as they clearly don’t need the revenue. Yep, looking at you City of Key West.”

The Florida Harbor Pilots Association, which backed the law, said it is critical that local ballot initiatives don’t restrict commerce in ports.

“Maritime commerce has a wide-ranging impact on the lives of Floridians across the state, allowing for the free flow of goods and services to all regions --- not just the locality of a given port,” association President Ben Borgie said in a statement. “Given that statewide importance, it is paramount that maritime commerce is not restricted or regulated via local ballot initiatives.”

Roach also argued on the House floor that the state has a legal responsibility to keep ports open for business. 

“What we are saying is Florida has to honor their commitment under the (U.S.) Constitution to not restrict people and commerce from entering this port,” Roach said. “We can't simply have a group of 10,000 people closing down the Port of Key West and holding the state of Florida hostage to $90 million in general revenue that would come in.”

The 2020 referendum was opposed by the port operators, who lobbied the Legislature to overturn the vote.

John Wells, chairman of Caribe Nautical Services, which provides maritime services in the Port of Key West and nearby waters, said that of 287 reservations in place for 2022 cruises, only 18 ships would meet the size criteria in the referendum.

The Florida Ports Council opposed earlier versions of the legislation as being too broad. But it said in a news release Wednesday that ports will “remain in local control” under the bill DeSantis signed.

“The pandemic has proven just how important Florida’s local seaports are to Florida’s economy. With thousands of cruise-related employees still sidelined, and cruise ships still unable to sail, it’s vital that local seaports are not further restricted in their ability to conduct business and create economic development opportunities,” Florida Ports Council Interim President and CEO Michael Rubin said in a prepared statement.

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