Thursday, February 24, 2005

Working Groups Akin to Legislative Committees

The governmental accountability group, Californians Aware, is bolstering efforts to maintain the openness of the working groups of the California stem cell agency.

The group, based in Sacramento, said that the stem cell groups are akin to committees in the state Legislature. If they operate in private, there would be virtually no way for the public or interested parties to make their views known.

Terry Francke, general counsel for the group, said in a letter to the Oversight Committee of the agency:

"Put simply, just as a Legislature without open committees is unthinkable, an ICOC relying on secret Working Groups won’t work in a manner people can trust. California (to say nothing of the rest of the nation and world, who have a substantial interest in what the Institute does) has no shortage of highly seasoned experts and advocates on the scientific, medical, legal, ethical and financial standards whose development and policing are assigned to the Working Groups in the first instance. To give these sources of experience a chance to comment on these standards only at the last minute before the ICOC, and in ignorance of what issues and options had been deliberated, modified, avoided or discarded in the process would be folly, and an insult to tradition."

Francke also noted that it is necessary to observe committee proceedings if economic disclosure laws are to have real meaning. "Knowing what wealth considerations might influence a lawmaker without being able to detect that influence is no better than being able to detect interest biases but not knowing what the interests are," he said.

Francke's letter did not argue that functions of the committees such as peer review of grant recipients and detailed initial discussions of individual grant proposals be conducted in public sessions. He said that California law provides for closed sessions for such matters when they come before state and local legislative bodies.

The Californians Aware letter was written in support of some of the objectives of the Halpern-Lee petition, which seeks to compel the Oversight Committee to hold hearings on rules for open meetings, conflicts of interest and other matters.

The Oversight Committee next week is scheduled to consider a move to delegate the handling of the petition to its chairman, Robert Klein.
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