Key West City Hall

The Key West City Commission District IV race is the busiest in the Key West ballot, but will only be decided by voters in that district. Incumbent Commissioner Greg Davila is not seeking re-election and four political newcomers want the nonpartisan seat: Ryan Barwick, Lissette Cuervo-Carey, Kim Highsmith and Steven Nekhaila.

Barwick is a former bartender who is now a wine sales rep. Cuervo-Carey is a lifelong Key West resident who works at the Key West Housing Authority. Highsmith worked as a federal background investigator and is a former board member of the nonpartisan voter education group Hometown. Nekhaila owns nine Wendy’s restaurants, including two in Key West.

We asked each candidate the following three questions in 100 words or less:

  1. Key West’s District 4 contains an interesting mix of longtime local residents and shopping centers that are crucial for locals and tourists alike. Would you support or oppose zoning changes that would allow housing to be built on top of malls?
  1. Besides housing, which concerns everyone, what is precisely the biggest problem facing the residents of District 4? And what do you propose to do there?
  1. Vacation rentals and investment properties are becoming the rule rather than the exception in the Key West real estate market. Because Florida election laws don’t define legal residency, owners of these properties can, and often do, vote here while living elsewhere for most, if not all, of the year. How does this trend affect people’s decision-making power and priorities in Key West? Would you support a 6 month residency requirement for voters, as required for Homestead exemptions and other matters?

Ryan Barwick
Age: 28 years old
Profession: Wine representative

  1. Support. We are going through a housing crisis, and this will help in the short and long term, as it will provide much needed housing for current employees and help maintain housing for our employees for years to come. We’re also talking about the new town area where we already have apartment buildings that are taller than the mall buildings, so construction isn’t the issue. In terms of look, New Town has been more modern, giving it a great contrast to the historic look of Old Town.
  1. I believe the biggest issues affecting District 4 right now are the Riviera Canal, the flooding issues in the district, and the beautification of the district. I plan to advocate dredging of the Riviera Canal to remove mud and trash from the bottom to improve water quality. I have been in touch with city staff to find out what can be done about flooding in parts of the district and if there is any new technology to help with storm water drainage. The beautification part would consist of cleaning up our small green spaces and medians, solving the overflow parking problem and cleaning the sidewalks.
  2. I support a 6 month residency requirement to vote, but the bigger issue is enforcing the requirement. Currently, we do not have enough code officers to enforce our laws and our police department is also understaffed. I also believe that this is a state problem and that we should work with our state officials on this solution. Another way to ensure that the voice of our workforce is heard is to allow those who work in the city and live in the county to vote, as every decision made by the government of Key West will affect them as well. than the companies they work for.

Cuervo Carey Straightener
Age: 42 years old
Occupation: Administrative Coordinator, Key West Housing Authority

  1. I would support zoning changes that would allow housing to be built on top of malls. My initial thought is that developing units above our malls would increase the affordable housing stock. However, residents living directly behind these malls and in surrounding neighborhoods should be interviewed so that their concerns can be addressed. At first glance, it is obvious that this type of accommodation would reduce traffic, if those who work in these commercial areas used the accommodation. This would allow workers to have minimal travel times to get to work, thus improving their quality of life.
  1. District 4 is made up mostly of local working families and also has a dense elderly population. Quality of life issues such as better accessibility and use of green spaces, reducing congestion and traffic, providing better and safer transportation options, and allowing residents to expressing their needs and opinions are all major issues facing residents of District 4. I suggest spending time developing pocket parks in our neighborhood. Perhaps the pocket parks on Flagler Avenue can use some attention with more shaded, recreational or passive implements like swings, shade or benches….
  1. I would consider considering a 6 month residency requirement for voters as required for Homestead exemptions and other matters. I am convinced that the residents who live here and who face the daily challenges of our island should be the ones who choose the leadership that represents them. As a permanent resident of Key West and having lived in my neighborhood most of my life, I have a deeper understanding of the current and historical characteristics of my neighborhood, the true makeup of its residents, and the challenges that affect my neighborhood with a lifetime of experience to address these challenges thoughtfully.

Kim Highsmith
Age: 52
Occupation: Federal Background Investigator

  1. I absolutely support zoning changes that would allow housing to be built on top of strip malls. Affordable housing has been a serious issue in this community for far too long, and given the extraordinary increase in house prices over the past two years, it has become a clear and present existential threat to life on the island as that we know her. In addition to controlling the proliferation of short-term rentals in our residential neighborhoods, we need to find ways to increase our overall housing stock. I believe that building housing on top of malls can be part of the solution.
  1. Our biggest problem is infrastructure: we need more bike lanes, green spaces, and safer sidewalks and surface drainage. The effects of sea level rise are evident when high tides flood our streets and businesses. While exploring long-term solutions, the City could implement temporary low-maintenance solutions, such as geotubes and water-inflated barriers. I would also like to see convex mirrors installed at intersections where visibility is frequently blocked by parked cars, in neighborhoods and especially along Flagler Avenue, to make it safer for drivers and cyclists to go out or cross the street.
  1. I am not in favor of limiting the right to vote. We have strong local elections, with widespread community interest and involvement. I think the passage of all three referendums on safer and cleaner ships in 2020, by wide margins in every district of the city, indicates that our elections still reflect the will of the people who live here. However, I don’t think this requirement would even be a problem for the city, because the person responsible for enforcing it would be the state or county supervisor of elections.

Steven Nekhaila
Age: 28 years old
Profession: restaurant owner/entrepreneur

  1. I advocate for mixed commercial/residential use, smart urban planning and development is a lost art that we need to implement. Allowing vertical residential units above businesses will allow workers to move around and shop without creating traffic. It is an attractive option for businesses to fund staff housing and requires no additional footprint or utility integration. Increasing supply ultimately means lower rent as demand is met.
  1. The biggest issue is the cost of living, especially when it comes to rent and energy. District 4 runs the gamut from workers to business owners. We have a diverse neighborhood, but our common denominator is the cost of living. We’ve been locked into expensive municipal energy contracts with the Florida Municipal Power Agency for 30 years. With the rising cost of natural gas and falling cost of solar power, there may be an opportunity to encourage solar power locally. The city can encourage solar power through an expedited permitting process, tax credits, and group purchasing to make it a more affordable option, especially on new developments.
  1. I would support a 6 month residency requirement, although it should be slightly higher. Many residents of states such as New York avoid heavy state taxes by residing in Florida longer than six months. The problem is so pervasive in New York that they will check Florida residents’ refrigerators to see if they have food or are lying to avoid taxes. When people who have no skin in the game here outside of residency make decisions, we get laws and regulations that only benefit them. If we don’t like Tallahassee and DC making our decisions for us, why should we be OK with outsiders doing the same?

Aurora J. William