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Byrd tactics hurt research center

A Times Editorial
Published January 21, 2007


The Johnnie B. Byrd Sr. Alzheimer's Center and Research Institute in Tampa has thrived despite the overbearing presence of its political benefactor. But Byrd Jr., having now lost an ugly showdown with the institute's board, has shown himself to be a distracting nuisance. For the sake of the institute, he needs to go.

The former House speaker managed to hold the Legislature hostage until it agreed to build the research institute bearing his family name, but his bully tactics have no place in a research facility that is attracting the attention of top scientists throughout the nation.

For the past three months, for reasons that are not entirely clear, Byrd has tried to lead an insurrection. He aimed at Huntington Potter, the institute's chief executive and scientific director, and wanted to fire as many as a dozen key staff members.

The tactics were vintage Byrd. He waited at a Nov. 1 board committee meeting until board chairman Thomas Conklin, a Sarasota attorney, had left the room, and then put his agenda up for a vote. As his hit list made its way to the full board, he began a round of character assassination. He railed about staff travel, consultants, lobbyists. He questioned how a scientist could serve as chief executive. Oddly enough, Byrd, who has served on the board since its inception, had previously consented to many of the actions he questioned.

On Jan. 15, in a meeting that ran nearly four hours, Byrd took his best shot and lost. He then called for the minutes to reflect each board member's votes, as though he intends some form of political retaliation.

This is not how any research institute can function. Its success turns on private philanthropy and government support, on persuading the best and brightest scientists of its organizational stability. The Byrd sideshow has managed to undermine both those efforts, toward no discernible end.

Maybe the institute has not been sufficiently frugal in some of its early expenses, including lobbying and communications. But last year's audit showed that administrative costs had dropped to 7 percent of the $15-million budget, and spending can be controlled without turning the institute's management structure upside down. In any event, at this point Byrd has so alienated his fellow board members that many would oppose him on principle.

The institute will open its new building at the University of South Florida campus in just a few weeks, and it already has been awarded a prestigious National Institute of Aging grant and can lay claim to some substantive research findings on Alzheimer's. Yet it keeps having to deal with the Byrd factor, both in the Legislature, where bitter political resentments remain, and in the institute's own boardroom.

To his credit, Potter remains upbeat. "The board has now said that our changes will be evolutionary and not revolutionary," he says. "Whether those votes represent a time for us all to heal ... will depend upon each one of us putting the past in the past."

Byrd, who has more than two years remaining on his current board term, is not known as a graceful loser. If he can't serve a more constructive role, then he needs to be removed.

[Last modified January 20, 2007, 20:37:50]

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