LARGO — The president of St. Petersburg College apologized Tuesday for selecting a construction firm without notifying the public, a misstep that violated state law and could delay the opening of the school's new Midtown campus.
William Law Jr. acknowledged that he did not open his interviews with construction firms to the public, nor did he record them, as required by Florida statutes. Attorneys say the interviews could have been exempted from public meetings laws, but never were declared public in the first place and still would need to be recorded.
The college's board of trustees voted to throw out the February selection of the Rhode Island-based Gilbane Building Co. and restart the process of awarding the $14 million contract. The college is replacing its current Midtown campus with a larger building in the heart of the neighborhood.
"I take full responsibility for the fact that we are back here today," Law said, adding later "there's always a little bit of an embarrassment factor when the president has to say 'back up a bit.' "
The school was quickly hit with a protest from Peter Brown Construction, a firm headquartered in Clearwater. The firm claimed that Law played an outsized role in the process, ignoring a selection committee's recommendation to pick Peter Brown.
The college denied that a committee ever ranked the three finalists before Law chose Gilbane. "But we can't prove it because we don't have a record," said Joe Lang, the board's attorney.
The board hopes to make a new decision in June, resetting the time line of the Midtown project, which was expected to break ground as early as May.
Law said after the meeting that he did not believe the new Midtown campus was still on schedule to open in fall 2014. He said it could open the next semester, in January 2015.
The new campus will have "the biggest economic impact that has hit this community in over 50 years," board chairman Deveron Gibbons said.
"Things happen," he said. "But if you work with us, you'll see we get it right."
Right now, just 8 to 10 percent of adults identified as eligible students within five miles of the Midtown campus enroll. Most of the college's other campuses enroll 12 to 16 percent of the potential students in their neighborhoods.
In addition to the change in location, the new campus will allow students to complete two-year associate degrees. School officials hope that community meeting spaces, a tutoring center, counseling centers, financial aid offices and a library will entice students and push enrollment from about 450 into the thousands.
Lisa Gartner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow her on Twitter (@lisagartner).