The Key West Mystique

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Key West city manager

Key West City Manager | This mess ain’t even close to done

By Linda Grist Cunningham, editor and proprietor

Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of Key West Island News and KeyWestWatch Media LLC. She and her husband, a park ranger at Fort Zach, live in Key West with their Cat 5s.

06/28/2024

Key West City Attorney Ron Ramsingh threw himself a 30-minute pity party on June 26 and, when he was done, four city commissioners helped him blow out his candles, then handed him a $100,000-plus present with City Manager Al Childress’ terminated contract as the wrapping paper.

Ramsingh got want he wanted. He may well come to regret his role in cobbling together this Bubba Uprising at City Hall.

At 5:10 p.m. Wednesday, Key West City Commission voted 4-3 in a special meeting to terminate Childress’ four-year contract. It took three hours and 10 minutes of charged discussion, with spontaneous applause and heckling from the audience — and just seconds to cast the vote.

Voting against Childress were outgoing Commissioners Jimmy Weekley, Billy Wardlow and Clayton Lopez. Joining them was Lissette Cuervo Carey, who will continue on the commission after the Aug. 20 election. Voting to retain Childress were Mayor Teri Johnston, Mary Lou Hoover and Sam Kaufman. Johnston chose not to run again. Hoover and Kaufman will continue as commissioners.

Because they were unopposed, former Key West Police Chief Donie Lee replaces Wardlow in District 3 and former Monroe County Tax Collector Danise “DeeDee” Henriquez becomes mayor. There will be new commissioners replacing Weekley and Lopez.

Ramsingh came to the meeting almost two hours in, then lurked, just off camera with his laptop in hand, near the dais. He grabbed an opportune silence among commissioners and asked to be allowed to read a statement into the record. The commission granted the unusual request, but failed to set a time limit.

What followed was seemingly endless finger-pointing filled with petulant grievances. (Prior to the meeting Ramsingh had recused himself because of conflicts of interest and an outside acting city attorney subbed for the meeting.)

Ramsingh anointed himself the voice of anyone who chafed against Childress’ management style, as clearly Ramsingh did. He proceeded in stultifying detail with his list of the times Childress failed to listen to him or follow his counsel. He hated being left out of meetings he once was privy to.

He was perturbed because Childress shouted at him. He accused the mayor of browbeating him and telling him to get in line, both of which Johnston denied. He punctuated all that with supercilious warnings to the audience that HE saw everything clearly and we poor souls could only “see through the glass” — and we were wrong.

He said repeatedly that none of it had anything to do with his brother, Raj Ramsingh, the city’s chief building official, referred to by the shorthand CBO, and who has had several significant run-ins with Childress over problems in the Building Department and clashes with the Planning Department.

He said he had shared his concerns with like-minded commissioners. That would be Weekley, Lopez, Wardlow and Carey. Carey, who works for the Key West Housing Department, complained that she had to take time off because the meeting was in the middle of a workday. She apparently forgot she was the one who set the meeting time and date.

Text messages released Wednesday morning between Ramsingh and Carey and Ramsingh and Weekley show just how hard they were working to keep the mayor and other commissioners — and the public — in the dark.

As my friend John Teets posted on FaceBook after the meeting: “It’s clear, after the city attorney recused himself but then felt compelled to take a long, steaming public dump in the soup, how the City Commission cooked up today’s firing of the city manager. I’m disgusted.”

Key West city manager

Key West City Manager | Will the new commission rehire him?

The next step will be asking former Assistant City Manager Todd Stoughton, who resigned June 14, to return as acting city manager, which Carey unilaterally told other commissioners he would do.

After that it will be anyone’s guess. State Attorney Dennis Ward was sitting on the front row near Childress’ family. There are likely to be outside investigations on ethics complaints, failures of the Building Department to comply with the city charter, Sunshine Law violations and assorted other legal wranglings that will expose a pillowcase full of dirty laundry. This ain’t over.

Longtime residents and Conchs who spoke publicly begged the commission not to terminate the contract. No one in the audience or attending digitally spoke against Childress. Wardlow, Lopez and Weekley repeatedly said this wasn’t about Childress’ performance but about his style — with plentiful references to “Key West isn’t Doral” even though Childress was a “God-fearing man.” Carey pretty much said she hated the guy and wanted him out. Period.

I’ve covered hundreds of raucous public meetings. Decorous though it mostly was, this was one of the ugliest. There are countless smart, tried-and-true ways to manage and improve “style” and maintain good governance. Childress’ management style can clearly be abrasive, though no one questioned his competence and adherence to city laws and regulations. But these four commissioners and Ramsingh, with his clear conflicts of interest regarding his brother, Raj, wanted no part of keeping Childress.

In my column last Saturday, I called it the Bubba Uprising. I said locals felt they were being disrespected by outsiders telling them how to do things. That was spot on. And, they won. Now it’s the Bubba Coup. But it will be a short-lived victory that hamstrings the new commission and new mayor in August. It is at best a Pyrrhic victory. They won this battle and they lost the war.

Commissioner Kaufman called for a special meeting of the new commission at 5 p.m., Aug. 26. The call was seconded by Hoover. Its purpose: Rehire Al Childress. Good idea, though I suspect Childress and his family will have left Key West in their rear-view mirror by then. Can’t say as I blame them.

Links to learn more

Watch the video recording of the entire meeting

Keys Weekly’s Mandy Miles explains what happened at the meeting and what might be behind the uproar.

Miles asks: Did a critical report about the Building Department prompt the move to oust Childress?

The Citizen’s Tim O’Hara covered the Wednesday meeting

2 Comments

  1. David Greenberg

    A city contract such as Childress should not be canceled by a simply majority vote.
    1. It ends up costing us – the tax payers – a staggering amount of money
    2. It Reduces the number of qualified applicants .
    3. The city should get rid of the Ramsingh brothers

    Reply
    • Roger McVeigh

      Mr Greenberg is spot on!

      Reply

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