In Praise of Leadership in Key West

At the behest of Bridget McDonald, Program Coordinator for Green Living & Energy Education (GLEE), I attended the Key West city council meeting this past Tuesday. The matter at hand was Key West’s recycling ordinance sponsored by Teri Johnston to make recycling mandatory.

If you missed this meeting, watch it on cable television. If you don’t have a teevee, make a point of finding one. Because in the decade since I have returned to Key West, what took place Tuesday night was electric. If after seeing that meeting you are not grateful for the leadership of Teri Johnston, Barry Gibson, Morgan McPherson, and the inimitable Clayton Lopez, then my advice is simple: Move.

Because these are elected officials, and on Tuesday night they earned their titles ways which lend credibility to the ideas and values of Key West and of America. In other words, if you didn’t get it Tuesday night, you may be living in the wrong countries—USA and the Conch Republic!

Our mayor, Morgan McPherson, stood for what is right in a way that honored the role he fulfills in a manner which would do proud Bobby Kennedy or Wilhelmina Harvey. Or even Dennis Wardlow, infamous for declaring the Conch Republic a sovereign nation and in attendance to speak his mind on the matter of the ordinance.

But unlike Mayor Wardlow—who spoke for recycling but publicly questioned the wisdom behind making it mandatory—Mayor Morgan McPherson gathered all his powers of presence and oration and delivered at his command, and before the room and all his constituency delivered a speech worthy of the title, “mayor of Key West.”

It began, “I can imagine, once not so long ago there gathered a group of people and before them stood a single individual who stood up and said, ‘Let us go to the moon.’ So to must we look to the future.

And building on that base, Mayor McPherson declared his position in support of the recycling ordinance. This after and tens of passionate citizens, dedicated to the premise of green living, took the podium make the case for mandatory recycling. (As well, as the less than five against.)

But it is not only a mayor who makes decisions in a democracy. In the Key West city council, there are six council members elected to represent us and our island population’s wishes for the direction of Key West.

In fact, it was not Mayor McPherson who even spoke first. Rather, it was all the council members, each having heard the arguments for and against, each who presented their own understandings or misgivings about the ordinance.

Leading off the council members speaking after hearing from the voices of those present in the room (as well as those who sent in letters) was Barry Gibson.

Barry takes the hard decisions hard. He is open about the difficulty of the decision-making process, and eloquent about how he weighs both pros and cons. He gave a lengthy dissertation about how and why he supports recycling but was concerned about it being made mandatory. His position was unclear but it sounded as if he would probably not be voting in favor the ordinance.

Next Dan Kohlhage, who is well-regarded for his generally practical and fiscal-minded nature, spoke on the matter. He was against the ordinance. He didn’t believe the information posed before him/that recycling would save the city $800,000 to $1.2 million annually, and furthermore announced as he read it, it would cost the city $145,000 to provide containers to the seventeen thousand residents. Kohlhage felt that education was the answer.

Kohlhage was followed by Bill Verge. Verge who was elected on a platform of ecology and support for green concerns quickly showed he was no friend of the bill, feared that he “wouldn’t be able to pick-up and throw away a ham sandwich on his properties without getting a ticket,” and denounced the bill as having the potential to pit neighbor against neighbor.

Mark Rossi came next, and while Mark Rossi is generally well-loved and respected his performance at the meeting was a mystery. He was against the bill because “he can’t recycle because Anheuser-Busch no longer makes returnable bottles,” and “Florida should bring back returnables.” What was so mystifying is what Mark was so upset about. It was as if he felt guilty for not doing anything to recycle anything at his popular establishments. What more, it was as if Mark was portraying himself of recycling only means returnables and now someone had taken that out of his hands and he was mad. It was befuddling to all present. Of course, Mark can recycle. In fact, his recycling would lead to such amazing publicity for ALL his businesses—Rick’s, Durty Harry’s, Angelina’s, Red Garter, etc. Even if he only recycled the aluminum much less ALL THAT GLASS think of the impact and positive approval and world-wide publicity Mark’s business’ would garner. But Mark announced he was voting no.

Next up, Clayton Lopez gave a position which was complex in thought and feeling, and honest. Clayton wanted to be for the proposal but again the misgivings about it being mandatory. He spoke as he is his calling card of community and community values.

In the room, a trail of young pre-teens who had sat and listened patiently as well as delivering their own impassioned pleas to pass the bill, touching speeches—no less impressive than the dual roles of double-sided signatured petitions which had together earlier been stretched from one side of the room to the other—got up and left. It seemed the cause had been lost. Their departure had its own impact. Against the backdrop of the adults arguing for and against recycling in the room, it appeared as if the future had got up and left the room.

It was at this point, Teri Johnston, sole female council member and sponsor of the bill, spoke and addressed—point by point—any and all concerns of her fellow council members.

“Every city who has had success with a similar ordinance did so by making it mandatory. They do not write tickets. They do not have to. These cities, we interviewed, and while it is mandatory, they have not had to write tickets. I am sorry for the word mandatory. We thought of many words to replace it. But it is the best word, and we have a person on staff for the city who is eminently qualified to make it work. That’s not a problem.”

She then clarified that there would be an entire year, working with all the groups and volunteers and city officials and employees and Waste Management itself, to insure a smooth transition from Key West’s present recycling rate of 6% to something like 60%.

And here Mayor McPherson issued his earlier-referenced position. Additionally, he said before all that he himself was against it but that it was none other than GLEE vice-president Jody Smith-Williams who had changed his mind and convinced him by taking the time to prove to him the good sense of this ordinance.

Kohlhage didn’t buy it. Mark Rossi returned to his off-topic position that he was against mandatory residential recycling because the State of Florida should make returnables again so his businesses “could recycle.” (?) Clayton re-stated his thoughts. But Bill Verge when it was his turn was practically fuming.

“I am deadset against this ordinance! There will be recycling police. Neighbor against neighbor! We must try education!”

It was at that point Verge made a claim so ludicrous that it incensed one person to storm from the room shouting, “I voted for you and I will never vote for you again!”

Verge said, “I have yet to see any education done on recycling in Key West.”

For a full moment after he said this, it was as if you could have heard a pin drop in the room. For the room was filled with educators and the aforementioned students. (An entire classroom of children from Key West Montessori, as well as other schools.)

Yet Verge’s pronouncement drained the room of common sense, leaving what felt to be a veritable vacuum of intellect.

Then Teri Johnston spoke once again, and again her measured and well-informed responses dispelled the heavy mist of ignorance which seemed to shroud us all, and again all were left with the impression that not only was our cause conscientious but that each of us in the room wasa sensible member of a forward-thinking humankind.

It was at that moment, after over three hours of meeting—half of which was dedicated to the matter at hand—that Morgan asked if there was a motion on the floor. And Teri Johnston motioned for the ordinance to be approved. With only Teri and Morgan’s outright support, it seemed as if the ordinance was dead on the floor. The emotion in the room was drained and low.

In fact no one seconded her motion. Until, with a show of unsuspected verve, Barry Gibson seconded it! It was a pleasant surprise but in truth it had the appearance of second-place. A good effort but in the end unsuccessful.

And that is when the most impressive moment I have ever seen at a city council meeting took place. It was a moment of pure adulterated faith hope and love.

It was now clear that whatever would happen would depend on Clayton Lopez. Clayton Lopez. Remember that name. I will. I will be telling children his name for years to come.

For suddenly it became clear to all present that Lopez was still making up his mind! And as this dawned on us all, someone did say, “Have faith, Clayton.” (He twisted at that.)

But then another voice came. It said simply, “Yes we can, Clayton.”

And at that, his head turned quickly, his eyebrow raised, and a smile lifted the left corner of his mouth.

And seeing that he was one of us, one of the generation who voted for hope, for the best person for the job, for Barack Obama, I have to admit it was I who picked up the call and shouted up to my friend and council member, “YES WE CAN, CLAYTON!”

And suddenly the heaviness left the room, and the lightness that was in all of our hearts flooded it, flooding it with the joy present from the victory our nation earned by the work we all did to get Barack Obama voted president and here was yet another one of those moments happening again! And there were smiles on all our faces. It was that day again!

And Clayton Lopez reached forward and with the uncertainty of the future before him but the certainty of doing the right thing filling him, he said, “AY!”

And the room erupted as a hundred people bolted up and lept to our feet. And a great cheer went up that lasted and lasted. And everyone laughed together and shook hands and patted one another on the back, and like I said it was amazing all over again. At that point, the mayor declared a five minute recess, and the room spilled out onto the street. Victorious. Fulfilled.

And that is how it happened Tuesday night at the city council meeting at City Hall, Greene Street, Key West. Find the video. Take a look for yourself.

Clayton Lopez, you are my hero. Mayor McPherson your right up there with him.

And Teri Johnston and Jody Smith-Williams, on behalf of Key West, thank you.

7 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Catherine Street
    Jan 10, 2009 @ 20:30:53

    I beg to differ.

    I feel you are demeaning and insulting to Clayton Lopez in this post. You write as if he was unable to make a decision without some sort of chant from the audience? Hello? This man is a mature, responsible man who does not get caught up in emotional rhetoric and he weights his decisions and his responsibility to his constituents very carefully. His eyes don’t glass over in that eerie manner that we’ve all witnesssed with immense concern over the past 8 months, at the chant “Yes We Can”. I’ve known him for some years and for you to imply that he was somehow swayed by some sort of mindless chant is really insulting to Clayton and indicative of the mob-mentality that we’re seeing far too much these days.

    The entire enforced recycling issue actually quite an embarrassment to the City of Key West and it’s many responsible citizens. The people of Key West once embraced recycling but the City’s contractor undermined the entire effort at every turn. We all recycled conscienciously only to find the bins dumped in the back of the truck with the rest of the garbage. The city paid for this service and their contractor undercut the city in the effort, and in my opinion, stole from the City with this behavior. Now they’re using it as a means to save THE CITY money? And what will enforcement cost to force people to act responsibly?

    This is poorly thought out. As my mama says, you get more flies with honey than with vinegar. If recycling is to work there must be financial incentives for the persons doing the grunt work – the people who are dealing with water shortages, the people who work three jobs to make ends meet and have no time to wash out bottless and cans. The savings in this program should be passed on to the citizens who do the work and do the right thing. ALL the savings should come off the sewage/garbage bill for each individual who has a recycling bin and uses it. To try to beat people over the head to enforce this is not only a poor idea, it’s an insult to the people of this town. And I pity the code enforcement people who have to sift through kitty litter and dog poop bags to see if someone is recycling.

    While I support all green efforts, I think this has been handled poorly and I applaud Commissioners Verge and Rossi for thinking this thing through, and understanding what is required for recycling to work.

    I also support Clayton Lopez and hope that he will listen to the strong concerns of his own constituents and come up with an intelligent solution for all.


    • kingofkeywest
      Jan 11, 2009 @ 00:12:22

      Catherine Street, then you miss the point.

      Clayton Lopez unable to make up his mind? Are we talking about the same Clayton? This is the man who led the march on Truman Complex. And his positions on our children and the importance of their future is unassailable.

      I am sorry you are so upset about the turn of events, but you have twisted the telling of the story, it just didn’t happen the way you are telling it. In the same way McCain supporters saw Obama’s victory as a failure, your comment depicts as a failure Key West’s victory. But a victory it was. And even taken out of context, Clayton Lopez’ process was an example of nothing less than inspiration and heart. Again, I am sorry you are against the direction of the future but regardless we are all working just as hard for you as we are for the rest of us.


  2. Catherine Street
    Jan 11, 2009 @ 00:55:45

    If the hearts of the people are not into the INTENT of this law, it will fail. Nazi enforcement will not bring about a positive outcome.

    The intent of the mob was to try to intimidate Mr. Lopez and it was a shameful, rude display.

    There’s still the second reading. There’s still time for the City to re-write this mess and make it a POSITIVE experience and not a negative, garbage-Nazi ruling.


    • kingofkeywest
      Jan 11, 2009 @ 01:56:11

      Catherine Street, your comments are filled with anger, which is unfortunate because the recycling ordinance passing is a cause for joy. The city commissioners who voted for the bill understood the facts about the ordinance:
      -residents are all paying for recycling already;
      -a 6% return rate means that the city pays more to have garbage hauled away;
      -this approach is based on a pattern of such successes in other small, medium, and large American cities’
      -the savings at a 30% return rate to the city are over $700,000 annually.

      The ordinance upon review is sustainable and well-constructed.

      If you have problems with Clayton Lopez’ support of Barrack Obama, which your comments clearly depict, than I recommend you call or email him. He is a friendly, well-spoken, and very approachable individual, and would welcome the opportunity to hear out your arguments.


  3. Mark Williams
    Jan 11, 2009 @ 04:22:12

    Congratulations to you all. Thanks from a concerned citizen!


  4. Catherine Street
    Jan 12, 2009 @ 23:00:40

    You clearly misunderstand. I have no problem whatsoever with whomever Clayton supports. See, that’s just it. He is an actual, intelligent adult who is able to support whatever and whomever he wants, all without being goaded by a mob. The mob showed no respect for Mr. Lopez’s ability to make his own informed decisions. They treated him as if he was inable to think without some sort of inane chant.

    Your comments to me are as condescending and insulting as was the treatment of Clayton Lopez last week. You write as if I don’t understand the value of recycling and as if I am totally unable to figure out that I can talk to Clayton. First we’re long time friends and we talk constantly. Secondly, the problem is not with recycling. Recycling is good. But to cram it down everyone’s throats with a punitive plan for punishment is a Nazi tactic that stinks of the type of revenge politics we’re starting to see a lot of this past year.


    • kingofkeywest
      Jan 13, 2009 @ 07:17:58

      Catherine Street, it is good to hear you are friends with Clayton Lopez. This gives you the opening to explain your feelings to him, and to address your misunderstandings and worries. It is clear you heart is in the right place but you misunderstand how recycling benefits all of us.

      People like our city commissioners and our mayor who voted in favor of compulsory recycling did so knowing that some who are unfamiliar with recycling have resisted recycling because of the ease and comfort of just throwing everything away into the trash. Seeing how this is costing us all money, grassroots efforts were successful to consolidate the people who presently understand the dynamics of the situation, and to educate over the next year the rest who like you consider recycling to be cost-free. But it is expensive to throw away recyclables, so each victory is victory for you, too!

      Your passion is acknowledged and as we move forward, together saying things to one another like, “yes we can!,” and “good job!”, it may seem as if you are being personally attacked or ignored. However, recycling is a fairly straightforward activity, and you can be assured plenty of education and assistance will be put into place over the next year to insure our success t recycling by making sure as much information is out there as necessary to give everyone the tools necessary for personal success.

      Not only can we, but I am certain you can, too!

      Holding recycling or voting for Obama against a person at this juncture is acceptable because all of us are doing the work. That’s how it works. Many are seeing the future so that others such as yourself will see it regardless of your feelings about the future at this time.

      Or in other words, because we did yes YOU can!


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