Like a drunk driver fleeing the scene of an accident, the Key West City Commission careens wildly toward its next inevitable collision with unintended consequences. The speeding City Government Hummer, drivers giddy on lawsuit fumes, the wreckage of the short-term rental ban trailing from its grille, motors on. The short-term snitch squad has only run down one felon. Funds to pay the winners of the Truman Annex lawsuit are still in taxpayers’ pockets. But the engine roars as the Commissioners suddenly swerve toward hotel operators who naively believe they own the property they’ve been paying all those taxes on.
Commissioner Scales, representing the city’s “Special Monopoly District,” has suggested banning the conversion of hotel rooms to condominiums because he suspects it might mean fewer customers for his Special District. That the conversions are significantly driven by the Commission’s ban on short-term rentals is an irony lost on its members. The ethics of the Special District Commissioner’s idea to punish hotel owners for the benefit of his employer will probably not come up at all.
The Commission has been handing out privileges to the politically adept for so long now that it takes its mission for granted. City government exists to reward those who whine the loudest at the expense of those who do not realize they are being fleeced or who do not have the political influence to stop it.
Government claims to act for the benefit of the public. Everyone agrees that market competition benefits the public. Why then does the City act to limit competition at every opportunity? The City limited competition for cabdrivers when they showed up in a mob whining about how little money they made. When hotel owners disingenuously expressed concern for our “quality of life,” the City squashed their competition with a short-term rental ban. The building department vigorously protects contractors from competition. A tour operator has been granted a local monopoly in exchange for a small cut of the action. The Commission even plans to limit competition among street performers by holding auditions to decide who gets permission to sing, dance, juggle or paint themselves silver in public. Is there anything sufficiently trivial to escape official notice by the Commissioners?
The Commission is dutifully seeking democratic consensus on its condo conversion ban. A modern civics lesson. Democracy in action. Consensus is all they need to pick one citizen’s pockets for the benefit of another. Whether doing so is legal or ethical is meaningless to a truly democratic decision making body.
The Commissioners are looking for opinions from anyone with a rooster in the ring. Innkeepers who righteously approved stifling other property owners with a rental ban are more ambivalent on the condo issue. They might like to sell their own rooms into this historic credit bubble. Restaurant owners have a say, too. The assumption is that if you own an eatery your friends on the Commission stand ready to bully hotel owners into managing their property for your benefit.
The no-growth lobby at Last Stand, though generally in favor of banning anything, for once has no particular opinion. In a flash of unexpected candor a spokesman remarked, “It just depends on whose ox is being gored.” Take that as an admission from an experienced activist that the object of participation in modern public policy debate is not to promote justice and the rule of law but to make sure the gored oxen belong to someone else.
One question the Commission never asks is, “Can we do that?” They never ask because the Commissioners believe they can do anything they want. As long as there is the flimsiest thread from which to hang an assertion of public benefit, anything goes. Wafer thin majorities grant power that kings could only dream of.
The answers to questions surrounding hotel-to-condo conversions require speculation on an unknowable future or predictions of market effects equally unpredictable. When we peer into the future most of us see only our own doubts and fears, hopes and ambitions staring mutely back at us. God does not whisper his plans in our ears.
When an elected official does the same, carefully considering whose ox to gore, watching intently for a sign, listening for a murmured hint of tomorrow, what he hears most often is “I don’t know.” To a private citizen those words usually dictate attentive inaction. But city officials, fortified by the knowledge that most of those offering advice share their bewilderment, never hesitate to “do something” — usually the wrong thing and often the very thing that will make the problem worse.