Wednesday, March 04, 2009

The Tale of CIRM´s 2009 Calendar

Asking questions of government officials can sometimes generate interesting responses, and the California stem cell agency is no exception.

Last week, as part of the agenda for the meeting Thursday of the directors Governance Subcommittee, the agency posted one of its regular reports on outside contracting. The category is the No. 2 operational expense for the agency at $2.7 million for the 2008-09 fiscal year.

CIRM Chairman Robert Klein and President Alan Trounson take justifiable pride in keeping expenses low -- well under the cap in Proposition 71.

That was one reason I asked questions about what appeared to be $69,200 for a 2009 calendar. How many were printed, why and so forth. But by the time, we were through, it seemed that the cost for each calendar could range from anywhere well under $50 to perhaps $100 or so. And the report on the outside contracts had been altered to remove any mention of the calendar as part of a $45,000 expense, which is now described only as image development, office art design and framing

We will probably never know what the correct cost of the calendar is. Don Gibbons, CIRM´s chief communications officer, has not even responded to my 5-day-old question about how many were printed. However, he did say that they went mainly to CIRM grantees and trainees, which number 448. An unspecified amount went to “constituents.”

Here are the calendar figures that triggered the original inquiry: $14,000 calendar printing to Fong and Fong, $10,200 calendar production to Reineck and Reineck, and then the $45,000 for “calendar” work by Abbott and Company.

On Feb. 25, I asked Gibbons about what was entailed in those contracts as part of other questions dealing with the outsourcing report.

His response:
“Calendar was short hand used by the contract office for a complex series of projects that resulted in high resolution stem cell images fit for printing (quite difficult) that were re-used for several projects, including the FLICKR site, backdrops for media interviews, an exposition banner, to provide to the media, and for framing to dress up the bare walls of our office (framing included in the budget), and yes, the calendar.”
On Feb. 27, I asked him:
“Re the calendars, for what year were they printed? How many were printed? Were they given away or sold? To whom? How many does CIRM still have on hand?”
Gibbons replied on Friday:
“I don’t work for the CSCR (this web site). All of your diving into minutia is a huge waste of tax payer resources. They are paying me to execute much more important and informative projects. The calendars were printed in December for the 2009 calendar year. Almost all were given away already (if you think I am going to the store room to count the actual number left over your are crazy). None were sold. Primary audience was the grantees and trainees to remind them 365 days a year where their funding comes from. All the various constituents who give use their time on working groups etc. received multiple copies. Each image is accompanied by a story about the science it represents. Short versions of those stories are the captions on the Flickr site.”

An earlier version of this item incorrectly gave the total as $65,200 instead of $69,200. The difference was in the Fong printing contract, which is for $14,000 instead of $10,000.


  1. Anonymous2:58 PM

    $69,200 -- let's call it $70,000, for simplicity sake -- for calendars to remind grantees and trainees 365-days-a-year who funds them? CIRM has got to be kidding. More importantly, the tone and content of Mr. Gibbons' response is not what I would expect from someone involved in spending taxpayer dollars. Need he be reminded he works for the people of the State of California (we pay his salary)? I would suggest that if grantees and trainees need something a calendar to remind them what their goal is and are unable to provide their own, perhaps the rigors of cutting edge stem cell research may not be a good match for their talents. California is simply in the worst budget crisis of its history and no one needs high resolution pictures for a calendar and other projects, or wall art for CIRM's offices -- to the tune of $70,000. One of the justifications is that pictures were needed suitable for printing, and that task was difficult. I would rebutt that pictures of all different types of science are all over the internet and I doubt those who posted them had this kind of money at their disposal to capture them. This expense, in my opinion, is a blatant waste of taxpayer money. Just because CIRM defends it, and characterizes this site's inquiry about it as petty, doesn't mean it's so. CIRM's mission is to aid industry in emerging science, not publish high quality photos and calendars. Calendars won't cure any diseases, period. CIRM - do us all a huge favor: produce the vendor invoices for the calendars, the underlying art (pictures/photos) used for them, and the framed wall art for CIRM's offices. Remember the agency's pledge of transpaency and cough up something as simple as these three items and let the taxpayers decide if the expenditures were reasonable.

  2. Dave,

    Don Gibbons is paid $190,008 a year as CIRM's chief communications officer. The communications office has two other staff members and there is another PR person under contract for $90,000. CIRM also has a $100,000 contract with the PR firm Fleishman-Hillard,

    That's a rather large PR operation for a state agency with a total of 38 employees.

    The mainstream media with the exception of the San Diego Union-Tribune, no longer pays close attention to CIRM.

    Thus, your blog has emerged as the publication of record for all things relating to stem cells in California, drawing readers literally from around the world, I would have thought answering your questions would be a priority.

    I guess I'm wrong. Maybe that's why I'm not in PR...

    Best regards,
    John M. Simpson
    MA Communications Management
    Annenberg School for Communication
    University of Southern California

  3. Anonymous8:32 AM

    So...others DO find it odd that Mr. Gibbons appears uninterested in answering legitimate questions regarding the use of public funds. At a professional-level salary of $190,000 per year, I think it's outrageous that Mr. Gibbons believes it's appropriate or acceptable to include in his reply "...if you think I am going to the store room to count the actual number left over your [sic] are crazy." Ask yourselves: would a person paid this much money, who was asked to be accountable to their private sector employer in the matter of a $70K expenditure, and who replied in this manner, still be employed? I don't know if there is a universal answer (but I think there is), but I do know how I would view it if I were that employer.

  4. Anonymous7:31 AM

    After reading about CIRM's free but costly to make calendar "project", I got to wondering on a bigger picture basis whether CIRM is subject to the State of California's statutes governing state agencys' acquisitions of goods and services.

    Here's what those statutes say: "For purposes of this section, "state entity" means every state office department, division,
    bureau, board, or commission, but does not include the Legislature, the courts, any agency in the
    judicial branch of government, or the University of California. All other public entities shall be
    governed by the provisions of Section 3247 of the Civil Code" and, "1) State agency" means any department, division, board, bureau, commission, or agency of
    the executive branch of government."

    One of the express purposes of the statutes is "...(b) To ensure full compliance with competitive bidding statutes as a means of protecting the
    public from misuse of public funds."

    If CIRM is subject to these statutes: a) are they following them, related to this purchase and ALL OTHER USES OF PUBLIC FUNDS? and, if CIRM is subject to these statutes, b) why aren't the records related to CIRM's purchases a routine matter of public record?

    Why is the public still having to deal with incomplete information on spending by this agency, whatever the category of expense?

  5. Regarding the questions about state contracting procedures and public records, the contracts and invoices are public records. However, the public records act involves a tedious and relatively lengthy process. It is usually much simpler and quicker to ask for the information without invoking the legal process. In fact, CIRM spokesman Don Gibbons has expressed a preference for using the informal process. But given that he has not yet disclosed the number of calendars actually printed, we have filed a public records act request. It is a number that should have been available in minutes. One can only speculate about the reasons behind the failure to provide the information.

    As for contracting procedures, I am not fully up to speed on all the questions raised. But CIRM is independent constitutionally much as is the University of California. CIRM does generally seek multiple bids on many contracts. But as in other state contracting, there are loopholes and special cases. One such involves Remcho legal services contract.

    Last August I wrote, "CIRM Chairman Robert Klein also told CIRM directors that Remcho is unique in its abilities, that basically no other firm in the state can perform the work. Thus, Klein reported, the attorney general's office has said the contract does not need to go out for bid." CIRM says that the attorney general's office rendered that advice orally.

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. Anonymous10:50 AM

    Okay, here is my two cents: perhaps if there were more transparency and accountability in its spending at state agencies like CIRM, the State of California could get to the point where its operations aren't threatened to come to a grinding halt and its bond rating isn't the lowest in the nation. Fiscal responsiblity, or the lack thereof, is at the root of California's ongoing budget problem and the state's acquisitions of goods and services statutes are worthless if there is no expedient and efficient way for taxpayers to be certain they are adhered to. CIRM states the calendar project was launched "long before the complete budget meltdown." Does that mean that before the budget meltdown the expense seemed advisable, but now that the state has no money such expense would be avoided? The real question would seem to be "Are free calendars, and their related expense, necessary to our mission?"

    This calendar project may be an example of exactly the types of expenditures (multiplied over and over) which create the state's budget shortfall in the first place. State agencies should not spend money just because they can; government at CIRM, and at all other levels, have a responsibility to look at each expenditure with a critical eye toward whether the expense is fundamentally necessary and if so, insure the State's statutes governing the acquisition of goods and services are being complied with. CIRM is not a private enterprise, instead it should always be mindful that it is funded with real taxpayer dollars.

  8. Anonymous10:51 AM

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  9. The two posts deleted above were removed because they were duplicate postings. We print almost anything short of libel.