Streets for People / The Mayor’s Strategic Plan is Helping the City Bureaucracy Get Stuff Done

Key West has a reputation for muddling along and well, let’s face it, not addressing the big things. Decades later we wonder how our problems got so bad. Think our lack of affordable workforce housing, our crumbling roads and sidewalks, traffic and parking congestion, our moribund transit system, and withering on the vine projects such as Duval Street, Mallory Square, and the Diesel Plant. Not to mention major vulnerabilities such as sea level rise and our degrading environment just to name a few items. When she first ran for Mayor, Teri Johnston called that out and said we can do better. So, she set out to develop a strategic plan to tackle our problems head on.

In 2020, just as the pieces were put in place to get a plan going, COVID happened. Her team pivoted and instead began with the Key West Recovers COVID Recovery Plan – a 17-point business and humanitarian plan for 2020-2021. This got the ball rolling and jump-started the help our local businesses and community needed to come out of the shutdown running. And boy did we. Next, after a huge resident survey, many stakeholder and community meetings and impressive participation from the City Commission and staff, on September 17, 2021, Key West Forward – The Strategic Plan for the City of Key West 2021-2024 was officially adopted. It was quite an achievement. For the Mayor especially. And then a very unlike Key West thing happened.

We actually started implementing the plan. No really! I see you snickering. It wasn’t put on a shelf in the finest Key West tradition as most plans seem to have been. Rather, this Strategic Plan includes mechanisms for ongoing accountability and implementation. It’s become a regular, couple times a week check in point between Mayor Johnston, City Manager Patti McLaughlin, and Strategic Plan consultant Elisa Levy, and lo and behold one year later, the City Hall bureaucracy has been roused and focused and lots of stuff has gotten done. All those problems mentioned at the top are being addressed – and that’s a formidable list. With the resulting momentum, the next couple of years look even more fruitful. That results in a better Key West and hopeful future for all of us. Let’s look at why this is important, what’s been accomplished and why the plan is succeeding where past plans have failed. And let’s celebrate some good government happening here because of three key leaders.



Elisa Levy – The Linchpin in Ensuring the Plan’s Implementation 

In the summer of 2020, after a six-month RFP process, Elisa Levy Consulting was hired to guide the City with the development of a comprehensive strategic plan. She and her firm brought with her two decades of international conflict resolution and private business development with Fortune 500 companies, small hotel chains and restaurants. Ms. Levy’s selection was a stroke of good fortune that we should all be thankful for. 

In watching Ms. Levy conduct meetings with the community and business interests, give presentations to the City Commission and other organizations or observing the caring and patient nature she takes in encouraging City staff, one is taken with her charming and grounded presence and power to command a room. She has an ability to include and consider all voices at the table, and skill at keeping the ball moving forward. No small task when our Key West table is often a buffet full of naysayers, whatabouters, leave-it-aloners, and NIMBYS. Most of all one notices her passion for our little island and enthusiasm for its people and our future. THAT is why she is the linchpin that holds this entire project together. 

That, and the fact that the Mayor and Manager were smart enough to hire Ms. Levy not just to put the plan together, but to continue the journey as the project’s ongoing coordinator to help ensure it gets implemented.

Why Is a Strategic Plan Important? “If You Don’t Know Where You’re Going, You Might Not Get There.”

A strategic plan is important because when it is done consistently and held to, year after year with the folks that matter up and down the line, it helps hold an organization accountable to get the right things done. I admit, I’m a fan of these and used them for 20+ years with great results. So, I admire the work done by Elisa Levy with the City of Key West. I asked her why this is important, here’s how she responded:

“Cities need a strategic plan in order to make sure they tackle their biggest priorities. Without one, we tend to get lost in the daily minutia without taking into account the greatest concerns like sea level rise, and housing. I often go back to the Yogi Berra quote “If you don’t know where you’re going, you might not get there.” I once heard a lecturer say, “many people know how to make a living, but they don’t know how to make a life.” I think that statement applies to a community as well as an individual. As a city, we to tend to put out fires daily and make “a living” but we mustn’t lose site of the big picture and the needs we have for the future. That’s what a strategic plan does. It looks beyond the daily “living” and addresses the “life.”

Says Mayor Teri Johnston in answer to the same question:

“Our Strategic Plan gives us all direction to most effectively utilize our resources both financial and human. Our plan requires that our Commission agree upon the entire community’s most important goals. This is sometimes challenging because each of our 6 Commissioners represent the competing interests of their individual districts. Our Strategic Plan encourages us to collectively support the most important projects for the greater good of our greater community.

Our 3-year Strategic Plan also provides a road map for our City Manager to most effectively utilize our 525 city employees who are also challenged to meet the competing needs of our community.”

What’s In the Plan?

The Key West Forward Strategic Plan is built on the back of a lot of listening to the community. A survey of almost 4,000 residents identified major issues of concern, prioritized capital improvement projects and showed which City services and amenities needed improvement. From this data six priorities emerged:

  1. Workforce Housing
  2. Sea Level Rise
  3. Roads and Sidewalks
  4. Environmental Protection
  5. Cleanliness
  6. Traffic & Pedestrian Friendliness

Focus groups were then conducted on each priority to seek solutions to the problems identified for each in the survey. Each priority is then broken down into goals and then a series of actions to meet each goal that includes a time frame for accomplishing the action, persons responsible for overseeing the action and funding and/or personnel needs for each action. As one scrolls through the document one comes away impressed at how simple, concise, and easy to follow the document is.

In addition to the goals and actions for each of the six priorities there’s a Major Projects section identifying 14 capital projects including Duval Street Revitalization, the Crosstown Greenway, Mallory Square, Bayview Park, KOTS, the Diesel Plant and more. There’s a Communications Plan to ensure ongoing updates are being shared with the community and an Internal Plan for the City Employees. 

The Engine of the Strategic Plan is the Master Calendar

The engine that makes the Strategic Plan work is the Master Calendar for Operational Plans. It is a year-long document that is broken down by month beginning with the first month of the fiscal year. Each major action or project from the Strategic Plan is broken down by month into bite size pieces that identifies the action to be taken, the date for the action, the person overseeing the action and a status that is updated as things happen. The overseer of the plan (Elisa Levy) meets with those identified as responsible regularly (weekly, monthly) to make sure things move forward according to the timeline. This is updated almost every month and is distributed to the Commission and staff.


A Lot Has Been Accomplished In Just One Year

I witnessed Elisa provide an update on the Strategic Plan at the Key West Business Guild’s luncheon on September 7. Her presentation was warmly received and showed much progress. Everyone came away impressed. For example, in the past year the City has accomplished:

Priority 1: Workforce Housing

  • Started 304 units of REAL workforce housing (Garden View Apartments on College Road, The Lofts of Bahama Village, Poinciana Village)
  • Started addressing vacation rentals and zoning
  • Hired Demetria Simpson as the first ever Director of Housing & Community 
  • Conducted Bahama Village Home Ownership Course 
  • Held special election on referendum for use of 3.2 acres of City land for workforce housing
  • Selected developer for 3.2 acres in Bahama Village (The Lofts of Bahama Village)

Priority 2: Sea Level Rise

  • Road Elevation (LiDAR Data) contract approved to begin September 28 (explanation)
  • A grant has been forwarded to Florida Department of Environmental Service (FDEP) and then an RFP can be let in October for a Climate Action Plan or vulnerability assessment

Priority 3: Roads and Sidewalks

Priority 4: Environment:

  • Completed a successful compost pilot
  • Completed checklist for DRC on solar energy options
  • Prepared a package via Waste Management to all residents on proper waste removal
  • Updated Stormwater and Sewer Master Plan
  • 3 City employees certified in LEED (Leadership in Environmental and Energy Design

Priority 5: Cleanliness

  • Identified a leader, Marge Holtz for Keep Key West Beautiful Adopt a Spot and 30 organizations/people adopted spots (so far) to keep clean
  • Mayor’s Beautification Committee started and meeting monthly
  • Publicized City’s “Key West Connect” app and went from receiving 20 notifications from residents a day to 175 on trouble spots
  • Hired 2 new Code Enforcement Officers to oversee proper disposal of waste

Priority 6: Traffic & Pedestrian Friendliness

Capital Projects:

If you follow us, you know that we’re particularly excited about the progress on the Traffic & Pedestrian Friendliness actions as well as on four projects that we wrote about at the beginning of the year: Mallory Square, Diesel Plan, Duval Street Revitalization and Bahama Village Housing Projects Create Synergy to Bolster Downtown; January 14 2022. As we said at the time:

“We’ve been grappling in fits and starts with Mallory Square, the Diesel Plant, Duval Street and Bahama Village housing projects for years. The recent history of each is strewn with false promises, hopeful beginnings, and dashed dreams.” And now, finally all four projects have vendors tasked with bringing them about. THAT’s great progress!

Why is the Strategic Plan Succeeding? 1. A Trio of Leaders Who Get Stuff Done 

The easy, short answer to the question of why the Strategic Plan is succeeding is because of Teri Johnston, Elisa Levy and Patti McLaughlin. 

The Mayor deserves credit because she pushed back on the skepticism that embarking upon doing a strategic plan was a waste of time because past plans had never been implemented. She challenged that by saying this time there would be accountability and oversight. And she enlisted her fellow commissioners and a broad swath of residents and the business community so that it was a genuine team effort. So, it all starts with the Mayor’s groundbreaking vision and passion for the project that we’ve written about here and here.

When I asked Elisa why she thought the plan was succeeding she basically answered Teri and Patti, saying:

“a. Listening to the community… b. A person in charge of accountability and oversight and c. Leadership’s support. The first two points would be irrelevant without the support of key people in leadership. I work very closely with Patti on a weekly, even daily basis. She is apprised of everything we do. When I need to push something forward, or we get stuck on an issue, she is willing to go to bat for it. The same goes for the Mayor. She believes wholeheartedly in the plan and comes back to it time and again on and off the dais.” 

She went on to add:

“I am in touch with Patti probably more than she would like! We communicate many times per week depending on what we are working on according to the strategic plan’s calendar. She is so busy, but finds the time, even if it’s late in the evening or on the weekends (which is often the case!) As per our city’s form of government and the Sunshine Laws, I try to be diligent about communicating with the entire Commission when need be (and not the Mayor alone.) I present to them quarterly and we have two workshops per year on the strategic plan. I send email updates when I feel there is something they might want to know. That said, the Mayor is such a big proponent of the plan, that she will sometimes reach out to me to ask questions about specific initiatives and offer help. She pays very close attention to the calendar and the budget. She and the City Manager are the plan’s greatest “Champions.”

When I asked the Mayor, she essentially said the answer was Elisa and Patti, expanding: 

“I have worked closely from the inception of our Strategic Plan, and I can tell you that our success to date is attributed to our Strategic Planning Consultant Elisa Levy who has been relentless (in a positive way) requiring that we are all accountable for the commitments that we all made towards achieving our plan. Elisa and our City Manager have worked tirelessly to fold in all our 525 employees to make sure that each of them understood the plan and how they individually contributed to the success of the plan.”

We talked about why Elisa Levy is a linchpin to the project above. But none of this happens without the ability to mobilize the City department heads and rouse the staff to action and that’s the doing of City Manager Patti McLaughlin. 

In a story we did last year on her promotion, civic leader and Parks and Rec Board Member Roger McVeigh said this:

“Having closely watched Patti in action in her most recent role as Acting City Manager for the last 90 days, it is difficult to ignore the new direction and substantial progress the City has made in seeking and planning solutions to many unfinished legacy City problems. Legacy problems such as workforce housing, sea level rise and climate change, homelessness and reconstituting KOTS, overall city cleanliness, completing Truman Waterfront Park, rethinking Mallory Square, Duval Revitalization, Key West Connect, Bayview Park revitalization and public transit and pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure are all in various stages of being addressed in a meaningful way.”

A look at the above accomplishments’ in the last 12 months underscores Roger’s words. Patti gets stuff done. 

All three credit each other – that says a lot. 

Why is the Strategic Plan Succeeding? 2. Accountability

When I’ve discussed various projects with staff over the last year in writing stories for this column, they all mention that this or that project is in the Strategic Plan and that their boss is holding them accountable for moving the ball forward. It demonstrates that all staff are accountable for helping achieve the Strategic Plan goals and actions. 

Here’s how Elisa Levy answers the question of why it is working:

“Having a person in charge of accountability and oversight. Our city staff members are overloaded, and we too are suffering from a labor crisis. Strategic plans require a person not already mired in the daily work of their jobs to create a master calendar with a budget attached to EVERY item. The plan must be monitored on a weekly and even daily basis. That’s not because people in City Hall aren’t doing their jobs. It’s because they are! They are so busy with the day-to-day, that someone outside of their departments needs to manage the process. It’s true for us all in life. We tend to focus on what’s urgent, and we don’t always get to what’s important. 

My role is to be the city’s “accountability coach” (or pest?) and make sure that we stick to the calendar, line by line. It’s a daily job. I meet with each department head on the plan every other month to review what they need to do according to the calendar. I then communicate with them weekly and daily if we are working on an item on a deadline. Because we are short-staffed, I often take on some of the more logistical work that needs to get done. The staff is the “brains” of the plan, and Patti is in charge, but I can and help with the non-technical parts to push things along. I told them when we launched the plan that if I push them too hard, they should tell me, and I’ll try to back off a bit. So far, so good, I think. They are spinning many plates, but I think we have managed to stay on track with some of the most important priorities in the plan.”

After the trio of leaders, this I think is the crux and what makes the experience of this Strategic Plan different from the past. Everyone was smart enough to realize that they needed to keep Ms. Levy on the payroll and help implement the plan. And it’s working.

Why is the Strategic Plan Succeeding? 3. It’s the People’s Plan

Mayor Johnston told me one of the reasons for the Plan’s success is because “This is the people’s plan – developed directly from community input.” I like that. Elisa said something similar in citing the success saying it lies in “listening to the community.” She went on: “Many strategic plans are written by a small group of well-meaning people. The key to a good plan is community engagement. The survey we did in January 2020 to launch the plan had almost 4,000 responses. That effort was paramount but even that wasn’t enough. We followed up with focus groups on each priority to seek solutions to the problems identified in the survey. The plan, I hope, belongs to our community and therefore it matters to them.”

The Strategic Plan Is Making Our City Government Work Better

Elisa told me: “In times of status quo, a strategic plan is a good idea; in times of crisis, a strategic plan is essential. We are in crisis. We are on our knees with a new level of housing/labor shortages and increasing threats of sea level rise. We simply can’t afford to live without a plan.”

To her point about housing/labor, one of the items that stood out in reviewing the latest version of the Master Calendar was how often the status had a note that said, “We don’t have the staff to follow through right now.” The elephant in the room is that every department is short staffed. Which makes the Strategic Plan’s first year success, more noteworthy. And with fewer personnel, it helps to have them focused and on mission all the more.

There’s no question the Plan is concentrating the Manager, department heads, and staff on what’s essential – the six priorities that the people really want, and not just responding daily to the loudest complainers in a game of whack a mole as bureaucracies tend to do when they aren’t pointed in the right direction. As citizens, we should all acquaint ourselves with the Plan and hold our leaders to account for getting these things done. They’ve given you permission to say, it’s in our Plan, so we expect you to do it. That’s the beauty of the Plan and Master Calendar. It is a tool to make our little island government work better and keep us all on the same page. Here’s how the Mayor puts it: 

“Our plan provides measurable goals and timelines for our 6 strategic objectives which shine a light on our most effective, productive employees who are eager to take on more responsibilities. This is the peoples plan having been developed directly from community input. During our 2nd year of implementation, I look forward to checking off accomplishments and keeping this plan a living, breathing document that reflects the needs of our community.”

Hear, hear! And because of all this the next year does look bright indeed. When you see our Mayor, City Manager or Elisa Levy, thank them for doing such a great job for all of us.

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Chris Hamilton is founder of the local advocacy group Friends of Car-Free Key West & Duval Street/Historic Downtown. A native of the District of Columbia, where for a couple decades+ he led nationally renowned efforts promoting transit, bike, walk and smart growth for Arlington County, VA’s DOT. Chris has lived in Key West since 2015. He lives car-free downtown and works and volunteers for a few non-profits. Follow him on Twitter here and his blog here.

You can find two years’ worth of KONK Life Streets for People column articles here and here and the most recent 2022 stories below:

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