LARGO — Former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker's hopes for becoming the next president of St. Petersburg College were crushed Friday for the second time in two weeks.
The college's board of trustees voted 5-0 to accept the four finalists chosen by the search committee in a complicated process that Baker supporters dubbed unfair.
"I have enormous respect for Rick Baker," said trustee chairman Terrence Brett. "He is a dedicated public servant, and I am confident that Rick Baker will be successful at whatever the future brings to him. But this is not about Rick Baker. This is about the rules."
The trustees' ruling came after months of speculation that Baker would succeed his longtime ally, departing president Carl Kuttler.
The popular former mayor was initially ranked third last week by the college's 13-member presidential search committee. However, the committee ultimately decided to move forward with four different finalists — two sitting college presidents and two college administrators.
The political upset rallied Baker's supporters, who quickly began a campaign to cast doubt on the selection process and have Baker reinstated as a contender.
"If we did that, why have a process?" Brett said Friday. "If you design a process and you play by the rules, to come in at the 11th hour and change the process is wrong and I believe that with all my heart."
The finalists are: Peninsula College (Wash.) president Thomas Keegan; Tallahassee Community College president Bill Law; Paula Gastenveld, assistant to the chancellor of the Kentucky Community and Technical College System; and B. Kaye Walter, an executive of Valencia Community College in Orlando.
More than 150 people attended the occasionally emotionally charged meeting Friday. The seemingly divided crowd produced roughly 15 speakers in favor of the committee's selection process. In contrast, more than 10 business owners, community activists and political leaders, including former state Sen. Jack Latvala and Pinellas County Commissioner Nancy Bostock, called for a broader search.
Faculty members and students urged the trustees to respect the selection process. They argued that Baker, the only candidate without a Ph.D. or education background, was not the most qualified contender.
"We wouldn't hire a police commissioner who didn't have law enforcement experience," said Gregory Byrd, a writing professor.
Baker, who had campaigned vigorously for the title, could not be reached for comment Friday.
His allies pointed to his professional experience as a chamber of commerce leader, mayor and statewide political player.
"It is not just academics," Latvala said. "It is politics. It is fundraising and it is administration of a huge budget and a huge staff."
Baker was eliminated last week in a majority rule process approved by the selection committee in a 10-3 vote. Only candidates who received the majority support were named finalists.
That process varied wildly from how the committee narrowed down the candidates in a previous meeting. Still, the college's legal staff and search consultant asserted that there were no rule violations.
Trustee and committee member Ken Burke said ignoring the committee's decision would cast substantial doubt on the search. "That is a much more damaging perception, and how would we defend it?" said Burke, the Pinellas County Circuit Court clerk.
Only trustee W. Richard Johnston expressed concern about the process. He indicated that Baker, the only semifinalist without a Ph.D., may not have been given fair consideration.
The college will schedule campus tours and interviews with each of the four finalists in coming weeks. A new president could be named as soon as April, Brett said.