John Delaney has been a prosecutor, city general counsel and two-term mayor of Jacksonville; he’s now closing in on his 10th year as president of the University of North Florida. Delaney can add another entry to his résumé: Folio Weekly’s Person of the Year for 2012.
Folio Weekly chose to honor Delaney for taking a leading role in trying to convince the 19-member Jacksonville City Council to amend the city’s anti-discrimination ordinance to include protections for gays and lesbians.
The backstory on adding sexual orientation to the ordinance begins shortly after Delaney took office as UNF president in 2003, and it involves his openly gay chief of staff, Tom Serwatka.
“When John became president, I was a little apprehensive,” said Serwatka, who calls himself a liberal and says he was opposed to the UNF administration hiring a conservative Republican president. “But we hit it off pretty well.”
According to accounts from both men, they began talking about the issue of gay rights when Serwatka said, “John, you could fire me if you wanted to. If I weren’t tenured, there is no law that protects me or any gay person.”
“He actually taught me the law, which says you can’t fire someone for being a woman, for being old, for being an African-American or [a member of] an ethnic group, but they never created a category based on sexual orientation,” Delaney said.
Delaney, a lawyer and former mayor, said he was embarrassed to not know about the lack of protection for gays and lesbians in Jacksonville.
Delaney and Serwatka first turned to establishing a non-discrimination policy for gays and lesbians at UNF, convincing “a board of Jeb Bush appointees” that the policy made sense. On Oct. 27, 2006, the UNF Board of Trustees approved it unanimously. It was amended again this October, extending the policy to include gender identity and expression.
A bigger task loomed: Convincing the diverse Jacksonville City Council that the city needed to extend its anti-discrimination protections to gays and lesbians.