Despite official mutterings of its death, the smallest city in Florida clings to life -- frail, scorned and half-submerged in the iridescent shallows of Biscayne Bay.

But you could excuse those who couldn't find a pulse.

Islandia -- 33 specks of land just north of Key Largo -- hasn't had an election in a decade or a city council meeting in more than a year. It has no infrastructure and boasts perhaps five adult residents. The expense of writing up its annual budget would cost more than the annual budget. And city Finance Director Steve Sibert can't say with certainty whether there is a mayor anymore.

He even hesitates about the city itself.

"It still exists," Sibert said. "Well, as far as I know."

Islandia never really breathed life as a fully functioning city, of course. Incorporated in 1960 with almost no one there, it was more a dream that didn't happen, a nightmare that almost occurred.

It was a plat-map promise of what could rise from an arthritic finger of limestone in the upper Florida Keys: glass, steel and concrete sailing into the pale scud clouds over the Gulf Stream, a wonderful, salable vision created by the real estate artists who used the Florida peninsula as a canvas.

But after four decades of color and controversy, the grandiose spirit of Islandia is gone, even if Miami-Dade County's archipelago city survives on paper.

The last elected "mayor" went bankrupt a decade ago and moved to Colorado, where he promptly won the lottery. The city council that played pretend at government for decades no longer gets to hold its illegal elections. Even the man who showed up one day at Biscayne National Park headquarters near Homestead, Fla., sporting a sidearm and proclaiming to be the police chief of Islandia is off the payroll.

"Legally, they're still on the books," said Rip Colvin, an analyst for the state Joint Legislative Auditing Committee, who tried unsuccessfully to reach Islandia officials several times in recent months. "But they're not a functioning city."

Last year, then-state Rep. Annie Betancourt figured that the city had more or less died and tried to wipe it off the books, but found that only the Miami-Dade County Commission could "de-corporate" a city. And no one there has taken up the cause. Dissolution would be just a formality.

Islandia has spent its recent years as a phantom of its former self -- diminished to a few gaunt, privately owned acres, swallowed by Biscayne National Park. No hope for a causeway connecting it to the mainland. No harbor, no six-lane Elliott Key Boulevard, no real estate boom, no cash.

Town Clerk Will Murphy runs the city from his law office in Hollywood. "I can't remember the last meeting," he said.

Would he fight a movement to get rid of Islandia? "I don't know. I wouldn't have any personal motive to contest it."

It is a sad circumstance for a city with such a famously -- or infamously -- colorful past.

For the growing urban center that Miami was in 1960, having 33 stunningly pristine coral islands a bridge-length from Key Biscayne was bound to put a glimmer in builders' eyes.

The main island, seven-mile-long Elliott Key, was a gorgeous tropical hammock of hardwoods and broad-leaf green -- great mahoganies, gumbo limbos and native wild tamarinds, entwined in canopies of morning glory and moonflowers.

Submerged in the gin-clear water just beyond lay the northern end of the world's third-largest coral reef.

Perhaps it was because the developers' plans to change all of this were so audacious -- and raised such alarm among conservationists -- that Elliott Key is almost exactly the same today, a world away from the metropolis.

"Look how beautiful it is out here," said Jorge Acevedo, a Park Service ranger, on a recent visit. As he pointed to a bed of moonflowers, which bloom only in the moonlight, or whipped around to spot a warbler, or lamented the dried-out purple bladder of a Portuguese man-of-war, it was clear that his years of work on these islands have not dulled his sense of wonder.

Islandia was established Dec. 6, 1960, by 12 votes of voters in a referendum, in an effort to build a causeway across the bay. Soon, plans for luxury hotels, golf courses and oceanfront homes loomed over the unpopulated keys.

But conservationists fought the causeway idea, and the U.S. Interior Department started seeking to purchase the islands. A long battle ensued. At one point, landowners graded a 120-foot-wide swath down Elliott Key, which they said would become a six-lane Elliott Key Boulevard. But Islandia became a national monument in 1968. The federal government bought up much of the property, and all hopes for a causeway died.

The giant clearing now called Spite Highway eventually sprouted trees again, leaving only a hiking trail.

The paper city of Islandia lived on. People could still own and buy property on the tiny Ragged Keys, just north of Elliott Key, and a few others.

Jack Pyms, a real estate broker, bought one of the Ragged Keys. He built a little split-level clubhouse on a barge for his boat club and was elected mayor in 1975.

"It was so enjoyable out there," he said. "My kids literally grew up on that island on weekends."

Plans for development were still in the works.

But the city's unraveling began one day in 1989, when Islandia's few voters got together and decided to elect a police chief, Robert Causey.

Soon after, Causey, sporting a makeshift uniform and bearing a sidearm on his hip, showed up one day at Biscayne National Park.

He informed the head park ranger that he was the newly elected police chief of Islandia and that he planned to enforce the law.

Dubious, the ranger called the state attorney's office, which launched an investigation. By January 1990, the state determined that all of Islandia's elections were illegal because only landowners were allowed to vote -- not people actually living on the islands.

Pyms, meanwhile, went bankrupt. A bank foreclosed on his island, Ragged Key No. 5. His clubhouse on a barge became infested with worms and sank somewhere off Soldier Key. Within a year of the state attorney's report, he moved to Colorado and won the state's $5.8 million lottery.

Pyms feels bitter about the federal government's intervention, but waxes nostalgic: "Who else can say they owned an island?" he said.

A bone fisherman pushes his boat through the calm water on the Atlantic side of Elliott Key in Biscayne Bay near Miami recently.National Park Ranger Jorge Acevedo hikes the "Spite Highway" on Elliott Key in Biscayne Bay. Developers bulldozed a 125-foot-wide, seven-mile-long swath of road down the island in 1968. This path is all that remains.Jorge Acevedo walks past a display on the "Spite Highway" on Elliott Key, north of Key Largo near Miami.