Key West Wrangle

Sides square off over Christmas Tree Island

Still, the episode left residents shaking their heads, convinced that officials were hell-bent on pricing every last working-class person off the island. "We're selling this town out to the rich," grouses Commissioner Rossi, who might be motivated to vote against development because of the parties he held on the island. He suspects his anti-development stance was the reason he wasn't invited to Sunset Key that night in May. Even Commissioner Bethel felt the citizens' ire. As he prepared to campaign for a seat on the town's utility board, he returned $1500 of campaign contributions from developer Walsh and his family because of the pending ethics complaint.

Meanwhile one Key West resident wanted to ensure that voters, not city leaders, would decide the future of Christmas Tree Island.

At age 66, Bruce Ritson is a strapping man, even though he has survived colon cancer and the amputation of his right leg. He's been having trouble with his prosthesis lately, so he spends most of his days inside, sitting in a plush orange chair under a lamp in the cool, dark living room of his house on a quiet street in the city's south end.

This summer the owners of Christmas Tree Island posted No Trespassing signs on the property to keep locals away
Michael Torbisco
This summer the owners of Christmas Tree Island posted No Trespassing signs on the property to keep locals away
Jimmy Buffett popularized the beach bum lifestyle in Key West
AP Wide World
Jimmy Buffett popularized the beach bum lifestyle in Key West

He thinks political corruption has become a way of life in Key West and Monroe County. And he's right: Former Monroe County Mayor John London died last year before he could be sentenced in a plea deal on charges of tax evasion. Former County Attorney James Hendrick was found guilty in February 2007 of witness tampering, conspiracy, and obstructing a federal grand jury. In 1995, Key West Commissioner Emery Major pleaded guilty to bribery and extortion charges for attempting to get city contracts for a water bike and taxi company; then-Mayor Dennis Wardlow (who famously spearheaded the city's secession from the United States to become the Conch Republic) was also charged in the scheme but later acquitted.

Back in 1975, Key West's fire chief, Joseph "Bum" Farto, was convicted on drug trafficking charges — but disappeared before his sentencing. (Then-Key West City Attorney Manny James was arrested in the same dragnet that took down Farto, but the charges were eventually dropped — although James was arrested a few years later and convicted of conspiracy.)

The mid-Eighties were a boon for indictments and scandal. In 1980, the Miami Herald revealed that then-State Attorney Jeff Gauthier used drugs, so Gov. Bob Graham removed him from office. Key West Police Chief Raymond Casamayor was convicted of protecting drug dealers — which eventually resulted in the entire city being declared a criminal enterprise under the federal RICO, or racketeering, statute, according to the Citizen.

Ritson moved to Key West from New Jersey in 1977 — just as the weirdness was getting started — and opened an accounting office. He had a thriving practice before the cancer. He befriended everyone, it seemed: judges, lawyers, the local homeless guys, and the clerk behind the counter at the drugstore. He still loves the quirkiness of Key West, even though that image has resulted in a hefty tax bill and a $12,000-a-year homeowners' insurance tab.

He looks tired, but his blue eyes — framed by years of laugh lines — sparkle mischievously when he pulls out a worn clipboard with some sheets of paper attached. "Here it is," he says, grinning. "Here's the petition."

Like many longtime Key West folks, Ritson was appalled — as he had been about the many previous scandals — by the politics surrounding the Christmas Tree Island vote. Ritson hasn't been to the isle in years, not since he took a girlfriend there on a boat in the late Seventies to smooch on the beach. He believes the place should be turned into a properly maintained park.

The former accountant doesn't think it would be fair for already-cash-strapped Key West residents to shoulder the police, fire, and garbage services for a bunch of new luxury homes. So in July, while sitting in his orange chair, he came up with an idea: What if the residents, not the commission, were required to vote on all annexation requests? What if the citizens had a say in what properties were accepted into the city limits?

Ritson, who attended Seton Hall University law school in the mid-Sixties, wrote the language for the petition himself. He knew getting onto the November ballot wouldn't be easy. He had only six weeks to collect 1521 signatures, or 10 percent of the voters who cast ballots in the last election. So he asked a dozen friends to gather signatures for a ballot referendum. Among them was longtime Keys politico Shirley Freeman.

Freeman first went only to friends' homes and asked them to sign the petition, but then she realized that wasn't enough. She changed tactics and visited local offices and grocery stores. In her 36-year political career, which included an eight-year stint on the Monroe County Commission and three years as county mayor, she had never seen such lopsided public opinion on an issue. "Everyone wanted the public to have the final authority over whether the island, or any other property, should be annexed or not," Freeman says. "There were only two people I talked to who wouldn't sign, and they said it was because they worked for the proposed developer of the property."

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