by Dennis Reeves Cooper…….
I sat down this week with City Manager Jim Scholl to talk about the state of the city, problems, accomplishments, politics and a variety of other topics. To say the least, Scholl is “special” in terms of city history. Over the past 25 years, he is the only city manager who wasn’t fired. And he is the only two-term city manager. Assuming that many, if not most, of those reading this story have not been here for 25 years, maybe some recounting of history would be helpful.
First of all, Felix Cooper was named city manager here in 1990. He served for six years and was, by most accounts, an okay manager. Early in 1996, he announced that he would be retiring when his contract expired the following May. The City Commission launched a search for a replacement and by February, 170 applications had been received and culled down to four candidates: Assistant City Manager Paul Cates; local businessman Paul Mitchell; Key West native Julio Avael, who was at that time county administrator up in Lee County, and Kathy Rice, deputy city manager in Clearwater. Then as now, it was not unusual for us here at the Blue Paper to schedule interviews with high-level government officials who were retiring– and we scheduled such an interview with Cooper. During that interview, he said that, in his opinion, none of the local candidates were qualified to step into the city manager job. In context, he seemed to be referring to Paul Cates, who was the apparent front runner for the job. He said that while Cates had the technical experience to be city manager, he had never managed a city– and the position of Key West city manager was attractive enough to attract candidates who were already city managers somewhere else.
The next issue of the Blue Paper came out on Friday morning, February 2, 1996. The bold headline at the top of page one read “Cooper: ‘No Locals are Qualified to be City Manager.'” By the end of the day, Cooper had, in essence, been fired and he had submitted his resignation to the city commission. Within a week, Cates had been named acting city manager.
In July of that year, Julio Avael– who was originally not even in the running– was named by the city commission to take over the city manager job. Here’s how that happened. Going into the vote, three of the commissioners wanted super-Conch Cates– Mayor Dennis Wardlow and Commissioners Harry Bethel and Percy Curry. And three of the commissioners wanted Kathy Rice– Jimmy Weekley, Sally Lewis and Carmen Turner. Commissioner Merili McCoy was the swing vote. She wanted a Conch, but she didn’t want Cates. So she reportedly told Weekley, Lewis and Turner that, unless they voted with her for Avael, she would join the others voting for Cates. So Avael got the job with a 4-3 vote. And during his 11-year reign, he gave new meaning to favoritism and corruption in city government. He was finally thrown out of City Hall in disgrace in July 2007.
Jim Scholl, who had just retired as commander of the Navy base here, was named to replace Avael. He served in the job for five years, retiring in 2012.
Hired to replace Scholl was Bob Vitas, former village administrator in Lake Zurich, Illinois. But it wasn’t meant to be for Vitas. The commissioners fired him after only two years on the job. One reason was that he had a continuing conflict with City Attorney Shawn Smith. And it didn’t help when a local woman publicly accused him of fondling her backside during Fantasy Fest. Commissioners convinced Scholl to return with a one-year contract. His contract was extended for two more years last July.
As I sat with Scholl last Monday, it was easy to see why he has never been in trouble with the city commission. He exudes professionalism, confidence and, well, class. (I don’t think I have ever used the word “class” when writing about a public official.) He pretended that he had nothing better to do than answer questions from a reporter from a small (but influential) local newspaper. We talked about major projects such as the new city hall and the Truman Waterfront Park. He said that the conversion of the historic Glynn Archer School to a city hall is on schedule with a predicted move-in date of June of next year. He also reported that the long-awaited 28-acre waterfront park is finally happening. A ground-breaking ceremony to mark the beginning of construction of roads and utilities is set for next week, December 16.
We also discussed homelessness in Key West and the status of the homeless shelter on Stock Island. “For a number of reasons, the shelter has to be moved,” Scholl said. “It’s just a matter of deciding where.”
Scholl agreed that the availability of reasonably-priced workforce housing (or, as we used to call it, affordable housing) continues to be a problem in Key West. A number of large homes that have formerly been divided into apartments, are now being refurbished for single-family homes, or even second homes for wealthy snowbirds. And in many cases, deed restrictions that required “affordable” rents are expiring. But Key West voters will have an opportunity to make a dent in the problem next March when there will be a referendum on the ballot to allow (or not) the city to buy 157 units at Peary Court at a cost of $55 million. If the referendum passes, the Key West Housing Authority will administer those units as workforce housing. But while the government may have some responsibility to try to provide housing for low income residents, what about all of the able-bodied people who come to Paradise, knowing (or maybe not knowing) how expensive it is to live here? A recent report estimated that 6000 Key Westers are paying more than 30 percent of their income for housing. Out of necessary, many businesses here have bought residential property to be able to offer affordable-rent units for their employees. Rightly or wrongly, zoning laws here generally prohibit potential solutions like dormitory-style housing or a widow renting a room in her house.
Finally, City Manager Scholl denied the rumor that Santa had been banned from the annual Holiday Parade. “As usual, Santa was featured in the last float in the parade,” he said. “We simply requested that other parade participants not feature Santa on their floats to avoid confusing the children.”
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