Florida Keys News - Key West Citizen
Thursday, February 7, 2013
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War of the ducks: Seafari lashes out at CityView Trolleys

In Key West, the duck drama has taken an unexpected sharp turn.

That's duck as in duck tours, given in sightseeing vehicles resembling the World War II-era amphibious carriers. The island now hosts two separate duck tours offered by two different companies.

But a public dispute Tuesday evening at Old City Hall wasn't between Historic Tours of America (HTA) and CityView Trolley Tours.

The disagreement aired at the City Commission meeting was between CityView Trolley Tours and the original duck company, Duck Tours Seafari, which the city and HTA put out of business some 18 years ago.

Duck Tours Seafari sold its ducks franchise rights to CityView in 2011.

The City Commission ended up approving, by 5-2, CityView's launching up to 10 ducks on the island streets and harbor. Mayor Craig Cates and Commissioner Jimmy Weekley voted against it.

But before the vote, Seafari's John Murphy and Peter Rysman accused CityView President Michael Thomas of playing the city for a fool.

Seafari is still an active Florida corporation that files annual reports with the state, according to online state records.

In a letter read aloud Tuesday, Murphy asked the commission to postpone deciding on CityView's application "for a multitude of reasons and until it sees the effect of [CityView President] Mike Thomas' operation of up to 10 ducks under the Duck Tours Seafari franchise which he already owns."

According to the Seafari people, CityView is getting for free the franchise it had to fight in court to keep alive.

It is unclear what rights Seafari maintains after selling rights to CityView two years ago.

Rysman appeared in person, running over the three-minute time limit for public comment, and calling Thomas a liar.

"This is just an end-round maneuver to avoid Mr. Thomas paying us for franchise rights he purchased from us," Rysman said before the commission Tuesday. "I'll let it go at that."

Thomas didn't respond to the accusations that he was playing dirty.

"I will not respond further to personal attacks in this forum," he said. "Any dispute will be settled in a legal manner as business people should do."

Thomas said the negative comments about him were untrue.

"What I will not ask you to do is take legal advice from Mr. Murphy and his LLC," he said.

Commissioner Tony Yaniz asked for a legal opinion.

"I'm a little confused here," said Yaniz. "They make valid points."

The city attorney advised the commission to stick to the resolution on the table.

"Your job is to interpret what is before you and not to embroil this city in a private business dispute between two entities," said City Attorney Shawn Smith. "I have a real fear that is where this is headed."

Tuesday night, CityView was asking for an amendment -- which it got -- to its franchise agreement with the city to specifically say it may run duck vehicles.

Commissioners approved it after in-house legal counsel announced if they didn't, the city would be vulnerable to a lawsuit by allowing HTA to operate duck tours but barring another company.

Duck history

That was all the lawyer had to say, as Key West elected officials don't require details to vividly recall the $8 million monopoly mistake City Hall made in the 1990s.

Duck Tours Seafari, which first ran duck tours here some 20 years ago, sued after the city and HTA and put it out of business in 1995.

The city back then said John Murphy's company hadn't obtained proper permits for the amphibious vehicles. Seafari eventually won after courts declared the city's exclusive agreement with HTA for all sightseeing tours constituted a monopoly.

The city eventually paid Seafari $8 million in damages, knocked down by appeal from an original $13.5 million.

HTA settled with Seafari out of court for an undisclosed amount.

By 2010, the City Commission had approved a franchise agreement with Seafari to put up to 10 ducks on the island.

gfilosa@keysnews.com

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