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Chancellor delays FAMU finding

Adam Herbert announces a two-month delay so he can further study proposals from Tampa and three other cities.

University system Chancellor Adam Herbert said Monday he is putting off for two months a decision on where the new Florida A&M law school should be located.

The surprise announcement came just three days before Herbert and FAMU president Frederick Humphries were to present a joint recommendation to the Board of Regents. Herbert said he needs more time to consider the proposals submitted by Tampa and three other cities.

The delay follows a strenuous lobbying campaign by officials backing Tampa's bid, including state Sen. Jim Hargrett and John McKay, the Bradenton Republican in line to be the next Senate president.

Both men expressed considerable irritation with a selection committee's recent decision to rank Orlando as the top site, with Tampa finishing third. Both suggested the new law school could face tough times in the Legislature if that ranking wasn't revisited.

Fred McClure, a prominent Tampa attorney who is coordinating Tampa's push for the school, said he doesn't know whether those statements influenced Herbert's decision to postpone the vote.

"But what this clearly means is the chancellor isn't simply going to accept what was voted out of the committee," he said. "That's good news for every taxpayer in this state. This is a decision that has significant financial ramifications."

Humphries did not return calls Monday seeking comment. In a prepared statement, he expressed no qualms about the delay.

"After waiting 30 years for the law school to be restored at Florida A&M University, another two months is an insignificant period of time," he said.

Herbert termed the delay "prudent" _ an apt description given the hardball politics being played by the contending cities, especially Tampa and Orlando.

Tampa's bid is backed by heavyweights such as McKay, former governor Bob Martinez and Bill McBride, the managing partner of Holland & Knight, the state's largest law firm.

Orlando's effort has the strong support of Tom Feeney, an Orange County lawmaker who is likely to be the next speaker of the state House.

Herbert made no mention of the political backdrop in his statement announcing the delay. But it means a final vote won't take place until after the November elections. Herbert recommended that the regents consider the location at the Nov. 16 and 17 meeting in Miami.

The FAMU law school is one of two created by state lawmakers earlier this year. The goal of both schools is to increase the number of minority lawyers in Florida.

One will be housed on the campus of Florida International University in heavily Hispanic Miami. Lawmakers directed FAMU to locate its school somewhere along the Interstate 4 corridor. That attracted bids from Lakeland and Daytona Beach, as well as Tampa and Orlando.

Tampa's proposal was the most generous, pledging $5-million in cash and the donation of the city's old police station just north of downtown. The building has environmental problems, including asbestos and air quality problems, but the city promised to pay the cost of any cleanup.

Orlando offered a 3.77-acre site and pledged to raise $15-million to build the new school.

Regent Steven Uhlfelder is one of the few board members who has spoken publicly about the competition. He thinks the focus on facilities and money is misguided.

The question that needs to be asked, he said, is which community can do the best job of producing an adequate supply of minority students interested in a legal education.

"I don't care if Orlando gives them part of Disney World and Tampa gives them Busch Gardens. What matters is which city will help us produce more minority lawyers," he said. "But nobody is talking about that."

McClure said Uhlfelder's point is a good one, noting that 32 percent of the population in Hillsborough County is either black or Hispanic.

"You can build the Taj Mahal, but it isn't going to do anyone any good if it's empty," he said.