Friday, March 20, 2009

Torres-Roth Election: An Adroit Move for CIRM

Without so much as lifting a finger, Art Torres has already had a salubrious financial impact on the California stem cell agency.

Last week, Torres(at left), the leader of the state Democratic Party and a former, longtime state legislator, was elected co-vice chair of the agency. As a result, CIRM has dropped its efforts to hire an in-house legislative relations staffer. That position has a salary range that tops out at $138,800. Torres is being paid $75,000 for halftime work.

On Tuesday, we noticed that the job opening was missing from the CIRM web site. We queried Don Gibbons, chief communications officer, whether the position was filled. He responded,

"We are saving money. The position is not needed with Art here."

Dropping the recruitment effort is modestly beneficial financially now and for the foreseeable future, given the agency's financial plight. But CIRM is chronically understaffed – capped at 50 persons by a nearly immutable state law. The agency relies heavily on outside contractors for its work – a situation fraught with well-documented financial and managerial peril at any level of government.

As for the election of Torres and Duane Roth as dual vice chairs, we think it was an adroit move, one that will benefit CIRM, certainly in the short term. A potential political problem was avoided. Much-needed internal heft was added to CIRM's governmental relations efforts along with its relations with the biotech industry. Torres will also bring a long-needed, experienced voice in governmental affairs to the highest levels of CIRM.

But as in all things, the devil is in the details of execution. If Roth and Torres butt heads significantly, either sooner or later, it could be a serious diversion from CIRM's main objectives. That is not to mention whether CIRM Chairman Robert Klein, who controls what the men do, can delegate responsibility and authority effectively without micromanaging their work. That goal for Klein should be high on the evaluation priorities by the CIRM directors' Governance Subcommittee.

Earlier this week, The Sacramento Bee editorialized that the dual vice chair situation is a poor idea because it makes it harder to check Klein's broad powers. A single vice chair would be more powerful, The Bee argued. There is a certain logic to that argument. However, the vice chairs are largely Klein's creatures. He is the one who is charged with setting their agendas, although the board of directors has a role as well. Should Klein feel that either Roth or Torres are impinging on his prerogatives, we have no doubt that he will move to freeze them out.

On the other hand, Torres is a veteran political operator and will soon develop his own constituencies and alliances both within the board as well as with outside organizations and lawmakers, both in Washington and Sacramento. Roth also already has his own constituencies within the biomedical industry and on the board.

One final note on Torres and his salubrious impact: Any savings resulting from leaving vacant the governmental affairs position will be minimized by Torres' travel and other expenses, which we assume will be relatively high and involve multiple trips to the nation's capital.

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