The City Commission hired local architect Bert Bender's firm to design the new City Hall at the Glynn Archer Elementary School, in a 5-2 vote Tuesday.
Commissioners heard from Bender himself and leaders from two other firms that had been named finalists for the job on a reconstruction that Key West has yet to price, but estimates at about $20 million.
Bender was a popular figure at Tuesday night's meeting. After 28 years in Key West, his portfolio includes the Gato Building and the Custom House restoration, which took 10 years.
"He has been here from the beginning," said Mayor Craig Cates before the vote was taken at Old City Hall. "He knows the building. He's been there at every engineering study. Even without getting paid for it, he's been there supporting us. You can't pay for that."
Cates was referring to the long saga of finding a permanent City Hall location that plagued Key West for several years, going from Glynn Archer to the old Angela Street digs and, last year, back to the school building.
"We are committed to the community," Bender told the commission during his firm's turn at the lectern.
City staff ranked the eight applicants, coming up with a "Top 3" list with two local architects at the front: Bill Horn and Bender, followed by the Rodriguez and Quiroga firm of Coral Gables.
Commissioners Billy Wardlow and Tony Yaniz voted for Horn, while the rest chose Bender.
Key West remains a city without a grand hall, as most staff work out of rented space at Habana Plaza, 3126 Flagler Ave.
Estimates for the reconstruction loom between $18 million and $21 million, as Key West continues to rent office space at Habana Plaza on Flagler Avenue in the meantime.
No dollar figure is included in the memo, but the rule of thumb for such projects is that the designs cost between 8 percent and 10 percent of the total construction. Commissioners may reject the rankings and choose another firm.
The commission also named Commissioner Teri Johnston, who runs a contracting firm, the liaison between the city and the architects.
"Let's get this started as soon as possible," said Commissioner Mark Rossi, who warned city staff not to ask for change orders on this project. "Let's get it started next week so we can get the permitting process started, and variances if there are any. The faster this is done, the more money the city of Key West is going to save in the long run."
The school at 1302 White St., which was built in 1926 with an additional building added in 1955, was handed over to the city by the School Board to become what Mayor Craig Cates envisions as a grand City Hall. The city will take possession of the school building when the current students and staff move out in June.
The elementary school kids will attend the new Horace O'Bryant School campus aside Bayview Park, creating the first K-8 public school in Key West.
The decision on an architect was difficult, as all three are impressive and highly qualified, said Johnston.
Yet Raul Rodriguez of Coral Gables was defensive of being called an out-of-town firm, citing that his proposal included working with local architect William Vogan, who has worked here for nine years.
Past projects of Rodriguez's firm include the San Carlos Institute, 516 Duval St.
"We should be judged on our merits, not our address," said Rodriguez. "I don't own a house in Key West. I'm not rich enough to do that yet. I have a commitment."
Rodriguez said he first came to Key West 25 years ago.
"I'm old enough to remember when Havana was closer to Key West than Miami," he said.
On Tuesday the City Commission also agreed to ask the County Commission to name the tower at the Key West airport after stunt pilot Fred Cabanas, who died in a plane crash last month.
Commissioner Billy Wardlow sponsored the proposal, which originally recommended naming the entire airport after Cabanas. But Wardlow on Tuesday said he only meant to ask the county to name something there after the aviator.
"It says 'or a part of the airport,'" said Wardlow.
Key West International Airport already has its newest terminal christened after former City Commissioner Merili McCoy, who died in 2005, and her husband, Sonny McCoy, former city and county mayor.
But there isn't any sign or plaque at the terminal telling visitors this. No celebration has been held, since the honor was followed by Sonny McCoy dragging the county into a sexual harassment lawsuit and subsequent federal trial in which a former assistant recounted in lurid detail how he spoke at work.
After the jury's verdict, the county had to pay $48,400 in back pay and damages to Celeste Bruno, who said she left the Keys because of the ordeal.
Mimi McCoy Grantham, the McCoys' daughter, pleaded Tuesday night before the dais that the terminal remain named after her parents.
"He took the city from the red and into the black," Grantham said of her father's five consecutive terms as Key West mayor.
The County Commission has the final say on any airport naming honors.
"I meant no disrespect," Wardlow said. "I talked to your dad this morning. I even got a book from him this morning, an autographed book."
Only Commissioner Teri Johnston dissented, saying that naming public buildings after locals isn't good policy.
Without comment, the commission approved a payment of $214,630 to Florida Keys Community College to settle a legal loss.
A Monroe County judge in January 2012 ruled that the city is not entitled to the stormwater fees it collected from the college starting in 2003.
In November, a different county judge ruled that Key West also was not entitled to about $400,000 in stormwater fees it levied on the Key West Golf Club, hospital and surrounding neighborhood.
Judge David Audlin called the fees "illegal," while Judge Mark Jones, in an amended ruling Dec. 12, found that the city acted in good faith but the laws had changed in 2008.
The $214,630 comes from the city's stormwater fund.
City staff anticipated the payment and had already budgeted $205,000 for it, according to Jay Gewin, utilities manager.