Florida Keys News
Tuesday, May 7, 2013
Curtain rises on channel-widening ballot question
Wording at center of discussion tonight, no decision to be made

The City Commission tonight will review for the first time the proposed referendum asking voters whether to ask the Army Corps Engineers to study widening the harbor ship channel.

At issue for commissioners at their 6 p.m. meeting at Old City Hall, 510 Greene St., is the language chosen for the Oct. 1 ballot question that has already spawned two political action committees on warring sides with various motives.

No final decisions on the referendum will come tonight, but this agenda item is the unofficial curtain-rising of a cruise ship industry debate that promises to hit full throttle by fall.

"It is opening night," said City Commissioner Tony Yaniz, who volunteered to sit down with both sides and City Attorney Shawn Smith to type up the ballot question.

Commissioners last fall decided that a referendum was in order to decide whether Key West needs a wider channel for the larger cruise ships that arrive on the island almost daily.

For the first time publicly, the proposed ordinance is on the commission's agenda with wording that both the Key West Chamber of Commerce and the watchdog group Last Stand have signed off on:

"Shall the City of Key West request that the Army Corps of Engineers conduct a comprehensive feasibility study, at no monetary cost to the City, to determine the environmental, economic and social impacts of widening the Key West Main Ship Channel for use by modern and longer cruise ships while also addressing navigational safety?"

Tonight is only the first reading of the ordinance. Commissioners will vote, but it takes two separate votes at two meetings to make an ordinance law.

The ballot language right now is written so that a 'yes' means the city must request the study.

"Originally, people wanted the commission to take a stand on whether to do a study and I said no, put aside your egos as commissioners," said Yaniz, in his first term on the dais. "This is something important enough where every voter should have the right to voice their opinion. At the end of the day, if they vote for the study so be it."

Key West's referendum is only the first step in either direction of the dredging question. Many variables, and possibly several years, stand in the way even if voters approve the "binding" referendum, which demands action if passed.

When pressed to reveal his Oct. 1 ballot question vote -- 'yes' or 'no' -- Yaniz put himself in the 'yes' column on Monday.

"I don't want to see the channel dredged if there is any environmental impact," said Yaniz. "But I'm not afraid of doing the study. Yes, do the study. Why not?"

Tonight offers an opportunity for residents to sound off on the issue before the commission.

The language can always be changed, but Yaniz and the two camps believe what they put down is clear.

"One of the things I promised when I came into office was clarity," Yaniz said. "I wanted to make sure the average citizen when looking at something like this knows exactly what they're voting for."

gfilosa@keysnews.com

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