First Coast Success: John Delaney, UNF president,
John Delaney served as Jacksonville mayor from 1995-2003, then took the position of president at the University of North Florida.
During his second term as mayor, voters approved a half-cent sales tax to support the $2.2 billion Better Jacksonville Plan of capital improvements.
He was the first Republican elected as mayor since the 1870s.
He also has served as chief assistant state attorney, City general counsel and mayorís office chief of staff for Ed Austin, who served as state attorney and then one term as mayor from 1991-95.
Delaney, who just turned 56, earned his undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Florida.
The Daily Record interviewed Delaney for ďFirst Coast Success,Ē a regular segment on the award-winning 89.9 FM flagship First Coast Connect program, hosted by Melissa Ross.
The interview is scheduled for broadcast this morning and the replay will be at 8 p.m. on the WJCT Arts Channel or online at www.wjctondemand.org.
These are edited excerpts from the full transcript plus additional information.
Looking back on your career, which position of leadership was the most challenging and why?
Youíd have to say mayor, although the last couple of years at UNF with the budget situation, when weíve had the deepest recession since the Great Depression, it hasnít been fun either. But itís been very, very public, media reading your emails and looking at your calendar, where youíre going. In effect Iíve had three careers, with the State Attorneyís Office and City Hall and UNF. Theyíve all been fun and theyíve all had their own challenges.
Which did you enjoy the most?
Most lawyers would say that their favorite part of their legal career was in the State Attorneyís Office. Ed Austin really was an inspiring leader and youíd run through a wall for the guy. That was always intriguing, but I love being out at UNF. You really see where lives are transformed by obtaining a college degree, and the community is bettered as a result of the work of our faculty and research and in the community, so itís very, very rewarding.
Tell us about the state of UNF.
We actually rolled our enrollment back about a thousand students four years ago when the first wave of the budget cuts kicked in because we didnít want to impact the faculty and the student ratio and the class size. Weíve always prided ourselves on having the smallest and most intimate classrooms in the state of Florida compared with the other public universities and weíve made a transition to a traditional campus.
I moved to Jacksonville in the early Ď70s and UNF didnít accept freshmen or sophomores. It was upper division only. It was a commuter school.
That changed in the mid-Ď80s with the addition of freshman housing, athletic programs and the more traditional student and now itís very much a traditional university with the bulk of the students between the ages of 18 and 22.
We have about 3,000 students living on campus and weíve pursued aggressively being a destination college and focusing on the academics of the students coming and leaving. Weíre focusing on the teaching mission. Now, the University of Florida, by contrast, is focusing on a research mission, which is essential to the advancement of the state, but weíre not directly competing with that.
For a university that didnít have freshmen until 1984, we now have the third-highest entering SAT scores of any of the universities in the state, so itís a different kind of a place right now.
UNFís graduation rate has been in the news. Could you comment about that and what the plans are to improve it?
As to the graduation rate, it is in the low 20 percent for (students graduating in) four years, but doubles to the 40s when going to five years. Two-thirds of our kids work and one-third work full time. So what is known as the ďexpected graduation rateĒ is pretty good. We lose about 10 percent to UF/FSU after two years. And the graduation rate is climbing pretty quickly. We are raising money to help kids to work less and take more classes. We are also working to bond the students to the campus. And our admission standards are rapidly increasing. We are now third in the state for admission standards behind UF and FSU. These kids tend to stay and graduate.
Letís talk about the Better Jacksonville Plan. What were the factors then that persuaded voters to approve a tax increase, and do you see that ever happening again?
It depends. I made a cornerstone of cutting the tax rate every year while I was mayor. We actually cut that tax rate by 10 percent. We cut about a third of the employees, not policemen and firemen, but the civilian side, which is a dramatic reduction. We did it without any layoffs, all through attrition, outsourcing, privatizing. We were very gentle about it. We guaranteed people jobs back in the City if they didnít like the outsourced employer.
I think when we went into 2000, we had established some degree of confidence that the government was being managed fairly well.
Essentially, the pitch was really twofold. First, Jacksonville had caught up with the growth that had hit the rest of the state and we were starting to feel that pinch. There are upsides to growth. You sell more newspapers and hamburgers and T-shirts, but the downsides are that your infrastructure falls behind. The older neighborhoods get left behind, leapfrogged by suburban sprawl. Then you pollute the place. You pollute the water, the ground and the air.
We wanted to develop a plan to deal with those three components. It had a lot of moving pieces to it, investing in Downtown, cleaning up contaminated lands, buying a bunch of park land and building bike paths, sidewalks, overpasses, widening roads.
We went to the public and we felt really good about Jacksonville. The Jaguars were winning; weíd kind of lost that inferiority complex that we had earlier.
Part of what the pitch was, was Ďlook, Jacksonvilleís going to be great, but wouldnít it be better if we improved the road system, had the biggest park system in the country, had bike paths and sidewalks, revitalized the Downtown, invested in the Northwest quadrant, cleaned up contaminated lands, etc., etc.?í
The public was willing. It was a landslide win. Basically, anything above 55 percent approval is a landslide. I think it won 57 or 58 percent of the vote.
Should we not have rolled back the taxes? Would we be in a better spot right now?
Itís really kind of ironic. You were at the Times-Union. I used to get gigged. The reporters had fun because I was cutting at a percent-and-a-half a year and the reporters used to joke, Ďwe tried to find alternative words for small ó tiny, infinitesimal cuts,í etc.
Itís funny, Ron Littlepage, who spent the Ď90s complaining about government spending too much, was on the other side, complaining we cut too much.
But at the time we didnít need it to run the operations of government. We improved fire response time, we patched every pothole within 24 hours, we had a call center that you could call and get immediate action. The parks were big and clean. We were doing all the things that were needed.
You can always raise it, if you want to move that rate back up. If people want to increase that tax rate to deal with the operations of government, they can certainly do that.
Do you think thatíll happen?
It doesnít look like this mayor wants to do it, so weíll see how he gets through this budget, because it looks like itís going to be kind of ugly.
We were able to eliminate one-third of the jobs, and thatís while the city was growing. We had increased demand, we had more roads, we had more garbage to pick up and more homes to go to and more library demands and more fires. We squeezed that out.
I said to Mayor (John) Peyton, I donít know how much left youíve got. You can always find another 1 or 2 percent, but at some point, you cease to have a functioning government. And if all we have in this city is policemen and firemen driving around, without Little League baseball, and without museums, without libraries being open on the weekend, and without Fourth of July celebrations, and parades for Veterans Day, without enticing schools to come in for the Gator Bowl and spend money in our hotels and restaurants, what kind of city do you have?
Thereís a certain threshold that youíve got to spend, and of course thatís for the mayor and City Council to deal with. Not my job anymore.
Do you have any insights on what to do with the pension situation?
Itís not quite as bad as itís being portrayed, but, especially the civilian, the City side, was actually fully funded, it was overfunded, in 2000 when I was there, and it was constitutionally funded, appropriately, both the police and the fire fund.
The problem is that the unions have an awful lot of strength. You get squeezed. As soon as times are good youíve got to get more benefits, when times are bad, youíve got to put more money in it. And the City hasnít put as much in the pension fund as itís needed to over the past 10 years. Thatís a lot of money to suck up into the pension fund, so clearly there needs to be a reform.
Some of the salaries are getting too high in some places to be able to pay out pensions based on those salaries. Theyíre heading that way. It just takes them a little longer than I think all of us would hope.
What about the funding of the pension plan? You were in some pretty good economic times.
People will say that, but every mayor gets a recession. We had the 2000-2001 recession, with the 9/11 complications. Actually the government revenue grew more in Mayor Peytonís administration than in my administration, when you netted everything out. Mostly what we were focused on was the efficiency, so we were trying to drive that into City Hall.
You ask, whatís the thing you were most proud of when you were mayor?
Frankly it was cutting the tax rate. It was showing that you could run government far more effectively than we had in the past and being able to trim as many employees as we did from the public payroll, all the while increasing the service levels.
We measured every function that we did and all those levels improved over a period of time and I feel good about that. Not sexy, itís not a headline, not a front-page story, or a story on the television news, but I thought it was pretty important.
One last capital improvement project from the Better Jacksonville Plan is the Duval County Courthouse. Were you at the June 18 opening?
No, I sure wasnít. I donít think I was invited, or I may have been out of town. But thatís one my administration, if weíd had 18 more months, I think we would have had that thing handled and of course my guys blamed Mayor Peytonís guys, Mayor Peytonís guys blamed our guys, probably both of us had a little bit of skin in that game.
Iím disappointed that the original design wasnít kept, personally, and I thought the courthouse was kind of oriented, or turned, the wrong way. I always said a courthouse needs to be dignified, it doesnít need to be ostentatious.
But as a community, we really shouldnít build second-rate public buildings, because theyíre around forever. Theyíre meant to be permanent. I didnít think it was ostentatious on a per-square-foot level. It just has to be a big building, because Duval County is very big.
Any comment on the $350 million cost, which seemed to vary year by year?
A number of things happened right after that plan passed. First, the Census Bureau came out and said, Jacksonville, you actually are growing much quicker than we had anticipated in the past decade, based on the 2000 Census. So you needed it to be 10 percent bigger, so thereís another 25 million bucks. Then 9/11 hit, and all of a sudden you had another $25 million in security costs, and then the land values just simply took off.
It was one of the reasons the real estate bubble hit, they were just going through the roof. The land, I think, added another $25 to $40 million. That really was the difference. Thatís really what went on.
We had $190 (million). We had contingency money in the Better Jacksonville Plan, which took it to $211 million.
We probably could have hit it at $260 (million) or $270 (million), and we had a plan to do that, but the Legislature took away that funding.
And then Mayor Peyton, when he reversed it, obviously some money was lost on that move, but he felt heíd lost confidence in that team at that point in time. They werenít his people, he was inheriting them, the contractors, and so it turned out the way it did.
Itís still a nice building, and youíve got to have it.
Do you have any observations or advice for the current administration?
No, not really. You know, he (Mayor Alvin Brown) and I talk with some regularity. Heís a high-energy guy and represents the city well and is pushing the buttons that need to be pushed. Heís settling into the job, and I wish him well.
You created the Jacksonville Economic Development Commission, which brought together the many economic development agencies, and you also rolled the Downtown Development Authority into the JEDC. Now itís returning to an Office of Economic Development within the mayorís office and a separate Downtown Investment Authority. Where do you see economic development?
It needs to evolve and Mayor Brown bounced his proposals out and I thought they were right.
We always had a heavy emphasis on Downtown, but not every mayor does. Mayor (Hans) Tanzler didnít, Mayor (Jake) Godbold did. Mayor (Tommy) Hazouri didnít, Mayor Austin and I did. Mayor Peyton didnít, this mayor does. Itís one of the reasons I think our Downtown has kind of had a push-and-pull event.
Investing in Downtown is not really that popular out in the suburbs, but when you go to a city like Indianapolis, you see why itís a benefit to the suburbs because it generates huge tax dollars.
Whatís next for you?
Iím hoping to retire out at UNF. Thereís been a lot of positive changes out there. I think our heavy focus now on academic quality and the teaching mission, putting us in the realm with the University of Florida and Florida State, is the right place for us to be. When I got out there, there was about 2.9 million square feet of space. We ended up tearing down a couple of hundred thousand for various reasons. Some were portables or temporary. Then weíve built 2 million since, so 40-45 percent of the campus is essentially brand new.
Weíve got a campus in the middle of a nature preserve. Itís really the prettiest campus in the state of Florida.
I feel good about it, and hope to be there a while.
When do you see your retirement, and then what?
Iím thinking five to 10 years. I doubt Iíll ever completely retire, so weíll just see. You know, every now and then, Iíll watch a courtroom show on TV, and Iíll get that bug again, kind of miss the law.
And you know, I follow politics closely and weíll sort of see about that, but Iím always going to be a Jacksonville guy, so I plan on staying here, so whatever I do is going to be here in town.
So does that put to rest any speculation or rumors that you might want to run for the governorís seat or any other elected position?
Maybe in five to 10 years, weíll just kind of see. Iíve got a son that turns 31 this year, Iíve got a 16-year-old at home and then we also help raise a niece and a nephew, theyíve got kids; my oldest daughterís pregnant with twins, and so thereís a lot to really keep you in town.
But you know in politics, you never say never. Basically the last three or four elections, Iíve been approached about being lieutenant governor, but thatís not a job that Iím particularly interested in. But I still get the bug a little bit.
I think itís helped UNF because of these relationships in the Legislature and the governors going back to Gov. (Jeb) Bush.
What about Washington, D.C.?
I donít see Washington. You know, being a congressman, running every two years, takes you forever to move up in seniority and being in my early 60s at that point, the U.S. Senate ó itís a tough grind. Youíve got a big state, youíre spending the bulk of your time in D.C., and trying to remain connected with the state.
Iíd always been tempted by Washington, but thatís pretty much off my radar right now.
There always are appointments.
There is always that. I was close to being appointed. I was going to take a look at a leave of absence from UNF to serve in the U.S. Senate and the man that the governor selected I think did a great job in that role, better than I would have done. He (U.S. Sen. George LeMieux) was far more suited and prepared for it, so you never know where those will pop up. That came out of left field, but Iím glad to be here.
So we may hear some other news in the next few years.
It would be five to 10, or five or six anyway.
You also are a supporter of the proposed expansion to the City human rights ordinance. Can you talk about what is happening with that, and what sort of experience youíve had?
We knew that thereíd be strong beliefs on both sides, but itís actually pretty simple. Weíre all entitled to equal protection and due process in this country, but to make sure certain affected classes are protected, certain laws are passed to protect based on religion, race, gender, national origin.
Most cities have added sexual orientation to that discrimination policy because you can fire somebody just for being gay.
People think you canít do that, but you can. If thatís your sole reason for firing somebody, you can fire them for being gay. You can kick them out of a restaurant; you can refuse to rent an apartment to someone for being gay. And thereís not (a) super-strong enforcement mechanism. There is a Human Rights Commission that tries to mediate a dispute.
Thereís not a lawsuit, you canít get sued over it, but itís really a kind of statement of policy for the community, that weíre going to embrace all and weíre going to be fair to all. Itís not creating a special class or a special interest. Some misunderstand it and some donít want to understand it and so thereís been some vitriolic backlash.
Someís healthy and some isnít.
What sort of personal reaction have you experienced for your support?
Since I was elected mayor in Ď95, and been at UNF for nine years, every time I run into somebody on the street, or somebody comes over to a table in a restaurant, theyíve just been wonderful. Polite and complimentary, and patting me on the back, we miss you, mayor, and just very, very nice. Till this.
Frankly, the nastier comments, they come from ordained ministers. Itís really kind of stunning. And you know, interestingly to me, Jesus never spoke of sexuality in the four gospels. The closest he came was one of the provisions thatís the most ignored in this country, when he said you shouldnít get divorced. One gospel was, you shouldnít be divorced, period. Another was, absent infidelity.
The only other time that you could even say it was close was when a group of citizens brought a prostitute in front of him theyíd caught engaging in prostitution, and they said, weíre supposed to stone her. What do you think?
He took a stick, and he was kneeling and he drew in the sand and said those among you without sin, cast the first stone. And the crowd dissipated, and he just turned to the woman and said, go and sin no more. He didnít damn her and condemn her. In fact, the people that he hated and condemned the worst were the sanctimonious and the righteous and those who used religion against innocent people.
So I frankly think on this one, I think Jesus would be fine with this ordinance passing.
Whatís the next step with this ordinance? There is a new City Council year and new committees. What happens?
Itís probably not going to get out of either committee as theyíre constituted, but it does look like thereís a majority of 10 or 11 votes on that Council that are in favor of it as amended. The first draft had some hiccups that we needed to get cleaned up. Weíve got an amended version that weíre probably going to have to get passed on the floor of the Council.
Then itís going to be up to Mayor Brown. When he campaigned, he indicated that he would sign it. You know, sometimes the view looks different once youíre in office than when youíre campaigning. Weíll just see where that goes after we get it out of the Council.
If there is a veto, do you think thereís an override?
No. I donít think weíve got enough for an override. It looked like we did and we had 14-15 votes, but then as the heat comes on and people start to hear different things. Itís tough if your pastor comes out against it.
Iím Catholic and the bishop is in favor of it as it relates to sexual orientation. Thatís a nice sign, it made me a little more comfortable.
But Jacksonville, we need to catch up. Itís not a threatening ordinance.
Youíre not going to be sued if you donít abide by it. It doesnít apply to churches or church-oriented institutions. You can believe what you want, but if youíre in commerce, you canít fire somebody over it, you canít kick them out of your restaurant or refuse to rent an apartment to them. Thatís just fundamental fairness.