City awards Jenks Ave. widening contract to GAC Contractors, case will head to court

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PANAMA CITY, Fla. (WJHG/WECP) - Doing something about the increasing traffic on Jenks Avenue is something Panama City Commissioners have been trying to solve for years.

While the city thought it had a solution, questions about the fairness of selecting a contractor have put the brakes on the process.

Jenks Avenue will one day be widened from two lanes to five between Baldwin Avenue and 23rd Street.

Who will do the expansion? That will be up to a court to decide.

Four companies applied to do the work, and the top choices are at odds.

C.W. Roberts Contracting, a company headquartered in Tallahassee with hundreds of Bay County employees, presented the lowest bid to the city, at $5.8 million.

Another company, Bay County-based GAC Contractors, bid at about $5.9 million at first. Two days after submitting that bid in April, the company came back with a second proposal equaling C.W. Roberts' bid amount.

Ordinarily, the city would go with the lowest cost bid. But last year, Panama City adopted a "Local Preference Ordinance," granting contracts to local companies, even if it costs the city a little bit more.

In its second bid, GAC also submitted specifications about Local Vendor Preference, showing it met the requirements of a "local county based vendor," according to the city's attorney, Nevin Zimmerman.

"GAC clearly is a local, county-based vendor," Adam Albritton, GAC Contractors' attorney, said at Tuesday's commission meeting. "C.W. Roberts is a local vendor, and in the ordinance, there's a hierarchy: Local city-based, local county-based, and local vendor."

City staff recommended going with GAC over C.W. Roberts for the project. But C.W. Roberts representatives say the process is unfair and filed a lawsuit over it last week.

"You may have noticed some of their employees here behind me," Brian Neiman, C.W. Roberts' attorney, said at Tuesday's meeting. Dozens of employees showed up in support of C.W. Roberts, sporting shirts that read, "I work local. I shop local. I vote local."

"These are hardworking people that have good jobs," Neiman added. "They have benefits, and they love their community too. When you put your thumb on the scale for one local contractor, you hurt other good local contractors, and you put their jobs at jeopardy."

Despite the protests from C.W. Roberts, Panama City Commissioners unanimously awarded the contract to GAC.

But the case isn't over yet. A judge has granted a stay over the case, meaning the city is prohibited from signing a contract with GAC just yet.

The original judge on the case also took himself off of it due to a conflict of interest.

Panama City Mayor Greg Brudnicki said the city cannot provide additional comment on any open case.

He did tell NewsChannel 7 he anticipates a new judge will be appointed to the case within two weeks.

City leaders say this is the first time the local preference ordinance has ever come into play over a contract since its adoption last year.

It should take about 18 months to widen Jenks Avenue once work starts.