Former House Speaker Johnnie Byrd held an entire Legislature captive until it agreed to build an institute bearing his family name, and now he's got his clutches on the institute itself. Too much public money is at stake to let him treat the Johnnie B. Byrd Sr. Alzheimer's Center and Research Institute as his own playground.
The center, nearing completion on the University of South Florida campus, has managed to rise above its political heritage and position itself as a national force in the field of Alzheimer's research. It already has received a prestigious National Institute of Aging grant and has made some interesting finds about the potentially beneficial effects of caffeine. The center's chief executive, Huntington Potter, deserves credit for positioning his facility to act as a source for statewide collaboration in research.
Byrd, though, refuses to leave well enough alone. He also refuses to listen to the Legislature itself, which passed a law this year aimed at loosening his personal grip on the board of directors.
Byrd had managed to appoint many of his political cronies to the board, forcing lawmakers to take the unusual step of appointing a new board. But Byrd is now seizing upon that legislative skepticism as license to direct a management overhaul. He would fire as many as a dozen key people and put the institute under the direction of a business manager instead of a scientist. Most such facilities are headed by researchers.
Byrd claims he is just looking for ways to cut administrative waste, but his petulance precedes him. Byrd's vindictiveness is legendary, and he is apparently aggrieved that the institute staff didn't fight hard enough to keep lawmakers from appointing new board members. He also complained to Potter that some institute employees did not support Ronda Storms, whose Senate campaign Byrd helped.
Whether Byrd has enough support left on the 16-member board to pull his coup remains to be seen. According to minutes from a Nov. 10 committee meeting, one new board member took exception to Byrd's attack, characterizing it as a "personal vendetta" against Potter. Another new board member, Terri Jo Barron of the Alzheimer Resource Center of Tallahassee, wrote publicly that Byrd is engaged in a "power play."
This is quintessentially Byrd the bully, which is why the Legislature has a decision to make. This center is nearing completion, has been granted $60-million for operations, and holds great promise in the field of Alzheimer's research. But it cannot succeed as long as it remains a playground for a man with an ego.
Byrd has become a poison to the Byrd center, which is why his name and his presence are no longer welcome. The time for gentle legislative hints has passed. Byrd needs to go.