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- 2012 - July - 9th -

First Coast Success: John Delaney, UNF president,

by Karen Brune Mathis, Managing Editor

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 mayor’s 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 “First Coast Success,” 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?

You’d have to say mayor, although the last couple of years at UNF with the budget situation, when we’ve had the deepest recession since the Great Depression, it hasn’t been fun either. But it’s been very, very public, media reading your emails and looking at your calendar, where you’re going. In effect I’ve had three careers, with the State Attorney’s Office and City Hall and UNF. They’ve all been fun and they’ve 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 Attorney’s Office. Ed Austin really was an inspiring leader and you’d 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 it’s 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 didn’t want to impact the faculty and the student ratio and the class size. We’ve always prided ourselves on having the smallest and most intimate classrooms in the state of Florida compared with the other public universities and we’ve made a transition to a traditional campus.

I moved to Jacksonville in the early ‘70s and UNF didn’t accept freshmen or sophomores. It was upper division only. It was a commuter school.

That changed in the mid-‘80s with the addition of freshman housing, athletic programs and the more traditional student and now it’s 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 we’ve pursued aggressively being a destination college and focusing on the academics of the students coming and leaving. We’re 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 we’re not directly competing with that.

For a university that didn’t have freshmen until 1984, we now have the third-highest entering SAT scores of any of the universities in the state, so it’s a different kind of a place right now.

UNF’s 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 “expected graduation rate” 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.

Let’s 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 didn’t 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; we’d kind of lost that inferiority complex that we had earlier.

Part of what the pitch was, was ‘look, Jacksonville’s going to be great, but wouldn’t 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.?’

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?

It’s 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, ‘we tried to find alternative words for small — tiny, infinitesimal cuts,’ etc.

It’s funny, Ron Littlepage, who spent the ‘90s complaining about government spending too much, was on the other side, complaining we cut too much.

But at the time we didn’t 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 that’ll happen?

It doesn’t look like this mayor wants to do it, so we’ll see how he gets through this budget, because it looks like it’s going to be kind of ugly.

We were able to eliminate one-third of the jobs, and that’s 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 don’t know how much left you’ve 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?

There’s a certain threshold that you’ve got to spend, and of course that’s 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?

It’s not quite as bad as it’s 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 you’ve got to get more benefits, when times are bad, you’ve got to put more money in it. And the City hasn’t put as much in the pension fund as it’s needed to over the past 10 years. That’s 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. They’re 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 Peyton’s 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, what’s 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, it’s 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 wasn’t. I don’t think I was invited, or I may have been out of town. But that’s one my administration, if we’d had 18 more months, I think we would have had that thing handled and of course my guys blamed Mayor Peyton’s guys, Mayor Peyton’s guys blamed our guys, probably both of us had a little bit of skin in that game.

I’m disappointed that the original design wasn’t 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 doesn’t need to be ostentatious.

But as a community, we really shouldn’t build second-rate public buildings, because they’re around forever. They’re meant to be permanent. I didn’t 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 there’s 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. That’s 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 he’d lost confidence in that team at that point in time. They weren’t his people, he was inheriting them, the contractors, and so it turned out the way it did.

It’s still a nice building, and you’ve 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. He’s a high-energy guy and represents the city well and is pushing the buttons that need to be pushed. He’s 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 it’s returning to an Office of Economic Development within the mayor’s 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 didn’t, Mayor (Jake) Godbold did. Mayor (Tommy) Hazouri didn’t, Mayor Austin and I did. Mayor Peyton didn’t, this mayor does. It’s 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 it’s a benefit to the suburbs because it generates huge tax dollars.

What’s next for you?

I’m hoping to retire out at UNF. There’s 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 we’ve built 2 million since, so 40-45 percent of the campus is essentially brand new.

We’ve got a campus in the middle of a nature preserve. It’s 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?

I’m thinking five to 10 years. I doubt I’ll ever completely retire, so we’ll just see. You know, every now and then, I’ll watch a courtroom show on TV, and I’ll get that bug again, kind of miss the law.

And you know, I follow politics closely and we’ll sort of see about that, but I’m 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 governor’s seat or any other elected position?

Maybe in five to 10 years, we’ll just kind of see. I’ve got a son that turns 31 this year, I’ve got a 16-year-old at home and then we also help raise a niece and a nephew, they’ve got kids; my oldest daughter’s pregnant with twins, and so there’s a lot to really keep you in town.

But you know in politics, you never say never. Basically the last three or four elections, I’ve been approached about being lieutenant governor, but that’s not a job that I’m particularly interested in. But I still get the bug a little bit.

I think it’s helped UNF because of these relationships in the Legislature and the governors going back to Gov. (Jeb) Bush.

What about Washington, D.C.?

I don’t 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 — it’s a tough grind. You’ve got a big state, you’re spending the bulk of your time in D.C., and trying to remain connected with the state.

I’d always been tempted by Washington, but that’s 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 I’m 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 you’ve had?

We knew that there’d be strong beliefs on both sides, but it’s actually pretty simple. We’re 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 can’t do that, but you can. If that’s 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 there’s not (a) super-strong enforcement mechanism. There is a Human Rights Commission that tries to mediate a dispute.

There’s not a lawsuit, you can’t get sued over it, but it’s really a kind of statement of policy for the community, that we’re going to embrace all and we’re going to be fair to all. It’s not creating a special class or a special interest. Some misunderstand it and some don’t want to understand it and so there’s been some vitriolic backlash.

Some’s healthy and some isn’t.

What sort of personal reaction have you experienced for your support?

Since I was elected mayor in ‘95, 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, they’ve 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. It’s 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 that’s the most ignored in this country, when he said you shouldn’t get divorced. One gospel was, you shouldn’t 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 they’d caught engaging in prostitution, and they said, we’re 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 didn’t 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.

What’s the next step with this ordinance? There is a new City Council year and new committees. What happens?

It’s probably not going to get out of either committee as they’re constituted, but it does look like there’s 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. We’ve got an amended version that we’re probably going to have to get passed on the floor of the Council.

Then it’s 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 you’re in office than when you’re campaigning. We’ll just see where that goes after we get it out of the Council.

If there is a veto, do you think there’s an override?

No. I don’t think we’ve 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. It’s tough if your pastor comes out against it.

I’m Catholic and the bishop is in favor of it as it relates to sexual orientation. That’s a nice sign, it made me a little more comfortable.

But Jacksonville, we need to catch up. It’s not a threatening ordinance.

You’re not going to be sued if you don’t abide by it. It doesn’t apply to churches or church-oriented institutions. You can believe what you want, but if you’re in commerce, you can’t fire somebody over it, you can’t kick them out of your restaurant or refuse to rent an apartment to them. That’s just fundamental fairness.

kmathis@baileypub.com

@MathisKb

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