TALLAHASSEE — Longtime Florida leader Bob Butterworth will resign his job at the helm of a stabilized Department of Children and Families next month, ending a public career that spanned four decades.
Butterworth, on the job 19 months, on Tuesday urged Gov. Charlie Crist to pick a successor from within the department's ranks. His resignation is effective Aug. 15.
In a teary-eyed farewell before Crist and the Florida Cabinet that was marked by two standing ovations, Butterworth called running the child welfare agency "my most rewarding challenge," but that he had always told Crist he would leave by now.
"I said, 'Governor, it's a fantastic opportunity. I'd be glad to do it for 18 months,' " Butterworth, 65, said, recalling a lunch the pair had at Torreya Grille in Tallahassee where Crist offered him the job. "This was done completely from the beginning."
The four-term attorney general has been the most prominent Democrat in Crist's Republican administration.
Through luck and what allies called hands-on oversight, Butterworth polished the DCF's tarnished image and largely avoided the pitfalls of predecessors.
Butterworth said he was proud of improvements in handling requests for public assistance and growth in adoptions of foster children. He said his departure is unrelated to recent budget cuts that led to serious job losses that he'd criticized.
"The good news is, there really is a lot going right," said Neil Skene, a former reporter hired by Butterworth for the agency's transition team. "It's not that we've got all good headlines. But things don't look like they're falling apart."
The difference, Butterworth explained, is that Crist demanded that he replace the agency's secretive, defensive culture with one of "total transparency."
Butterworth sided with the Fort Myers News-Press when the paper demanded records of a family's history in a fatal child abuse case.
His predecessor under then-Gov. Jeb Bush, Lucy Hadi, was threatened with jail time for not providing enough housing for mentally ill inmates. Within months of his appointment, Butterworth found housing for more than 100 inmates.
Pasco-Pinellas Public Defender Bob Dillinger initially urged a judge to get tough with the DCF on the issue, but he grew to admire Butterworth's handling of the controversy.
"He changed the attitude internally to solve problems instead of just stonewalling them," Dillinger said.
In taking the $138,000-a-year job at the DCF, Butterworth walked away from a better-paying job as a dean and tenured professor at St. Thomas University's law school in Miami.
Butterworth's resume and reputation as a troubleshooter made him an inviting choice to run the agency.
He was a prosecutor, judge and sheriff in Broward County, executive director of the state highway safety agency and attorney general for 16 years before joining the DCF. He said he would next join a Fort Lauderdale law firm, and that his long public career is finally over.
"This is it. It's curtains," he said.
Steve Bousquet can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.