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Byrd pushes Alzheimer's center to cut top managers

The ex-lawmaker's plan has created division at the center he helped found.

Published November 11, 2006


TAMPA - For the region's new Alzheimer's Research Institute, a year of turmoil is ending in a month of controversy.

Former Florida House Speaker Johnnie Byrd, who championed the center in memory of his late father, wants to wipe out the top echelons of management, eliminating at least seven jobs and as many as a dozen.

A board subcommittee agreed, but the chairman of the full board says he disagrees with at least one of Byrd's proposals. The full board takes up the plan in February unless an earlier session is arranged.

Byrd's move shocked many in top management at the Johnnie B. Byrd Sr. Alzheimer's Center and Research Institute.

Of particular concern is the future of Huntington Potter, the chief executive officer and director of research, who has led the search for the most talented Alzheimer's researchers and overseen construction of the institute's new headquarters on the Tampa campus of the University of South Florida.

Byrd, a Plant City Republican, had a controversial tenure as speaker in 2003 and 2004. He was typically blunt in springing his plan on the center board. Byrd says his move is not about personalities.

"It's about function, and we are not necessarily tied to the structure we've had in the past," he said. "The Legislature created this center and funded it to find a cure for Alzheimer's disease, and it is our obligation to be sure that every penny possible be diverted to research and clinical trials, not to salaries and benefits of managers we don't need."

Byrd presented the plan at the board's management committee Nov. 1. The committee is made up of four of the 16 board members, including Byrd and board chairman Thomas Conklin, a Sarasota lawyer.

Conklin left before Byrd made his plan known. Byrd and the other two board members voted for it at the end of Byrd's presentation.

Exactly how many jobs are at stake is not known, but Byrd's list includes Potter, who would stay on as director of research; chief operating officer Lilly Ho-Pehling and her administrative assistants; chief of external affairs Melanie Meyer and her administrative assistant; a paralegal; and the director of intellectual property.

He also targets "any other managers managing managers."

A new CEO would be appointed from the world of business and industry, not medicine.

"We plan to increase the number of scientists by two or three times in the next few years," Byrd said during an interview this week. "The Legislature has designated $60-million for the next four years. That number of people, that amount of money, need to be managed." He says such a job demands someone with a master's degree in business administration or experience running a large company.

This does not sit well with Conklin and isn't the norm for medical research organizations.

The CEO of H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute in Tampa, for example, is both a medical doctor and a research physician. The president and CEO of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., is a medical doctor as is the president of the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif.

"I think a scientist at the head of the organization makes sense," Conklin said. "In many models that's exactly the way it's set up."

The Legislature created and funded the institute in 2004 and Byrd was its first chairman. Scientists at the institute are trying to learn if genetics and environment are factors in the risk of developing Alzheimer's. Details are proprietary and kept secret.

Last spring, Gov. Jeb Bush signed into a law a measure that stripped the institute of control over its own board of directors. The measure disbanded the board June 30 and left it to the governor, speaker of the House and president of the Senate to appoint a new board.

Some of the old board members won reappointment; some did not.

Byrd temporarily walked away but returned as treasurer in September.

"I began to go over the books and found we are paying huge salaries to positions we don't need," Byrd said. "Why pay to have a CEO who delegates all managerial duties to the COO? I want to compress those two positions in a single CEO who actually will manage."

Potter declined comment except to say, "Nothing has happened until the board acts."

Asked if all the turmoil could cost the Byrd Center some good scientists who might choose to go elsewhere, Conklin replied, "That's a risk no one wants to take because the science is what we're all about."

Byrd agreed.

"Our mission is to find a cure for this horrible disease as quickly as possible, and that means directing every penny we can at research, holding the good people we have and attracting more," he said.

And if this reorganization fails?

"I'm just one of 16," Byrd said. "The board will have the final word."

[Last modified November 12, 2006, 11:43:46]

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