Friday, June 19, 2009

Festering Issues Surface at Contentious Stem Cell Meeting

SAN DIEGO – A bit of a rumpus broke out Thursday at the board meeting of the California stem cell agency. Nominally, the dispute was about hiring an additional staffer to help support the 29 persons who serve on the board that oversees the $3 billion enterprise.

But the heated discussion raised a host of issues, some of which have been festering behind closed doors for years. They included staff support for the 10 patient advocates on the 29-member board, the two-tier board structure, conflicts of interest, super-quorum requirements, ill-conceived legal limits on staff size, CIRM hiring plans, micromanagement and the agency's budget for the coming year.

“Festering” was a word used more than once by board members. It was connected to concerns of patient advocates about the lack of CIRM staff support for their CIRM-connected responsibilities. The discussion also highlighted the fact that other board members can designate alternates to attend meetings, but the patient advocate members cannot.

Those who are permitted to use alternates are executives at research institutions, universities or businesses. They also can use their own staffs to assist with their CIRM responsibilities. But some of the patient advocate members do not have jobs that allow them to do that.

One patient advocate director, Marcy Feit, CEO of ValleyCare Health Systems of Pleasanton, Ca., pointed out that patient advocates must attend more CIRM meetings -- of which there are many -- than other directors because that is the only way that CIRM, in many cases, can get its business done. She described the workload as “incredible.”

The meeting attendance problem arises because of the board's super-majority quorum requirements, which are embedded by Prop. 71 in state law. Conflicts of interests also regularly disqualify many board members from being counted as part of a quorum, voting and even participating in debates. One example occurred at the Wednesday meeting of the board, when only six board members could vote on $41 million in funding for training grants. All the rest in attendance were barred from the discussion.

Why do the conflicts of interest exist? Because Prop. 71 required the appointment to the board of the very persons whose institutions and enterprises benefit from CIRM largess. And Prop. 71 is all but impossible to change, also because of language the ballot measure wrote into the law.

Patient advocate director Jeff Sheehy, a communications manager at UC San Francisco, triggered Thursday's contentious discussion when he said he would not vote for the proposed budget unless another person was added to the support staff for the board. Currently, virtually all of the support goes through a single person, Melissa King, executive director of the board.

While Sheehy and other patient advocates had high praise for King, they said CIRM staff often was not responsive to their concerns. They said “significant difficulties” have arisen when they have tried to get information from staff.

Patient advocate director Jonathan Shestack, a Hollywood film producer, said that the problems have been festering “since the five-month mark” in CIRM's life. Shestack said,
“The truth is for many patient advocates they have other jobs that do not support the work here.”
He added that “I for one gave up at a certain point” trying to get the information and support that he needed. He said board members cannot go easily to staff to find explanations about complex bond financing or scientific issues.

Patient advocate director David Serrano Sewell, a deputy city attorney for San Francisco, resisted a suggestion from one board member that Thursday's discussion take place in private instead of at a public meeting. He said that efforts have been made in the past to resolve the problem both cordially and in private. But he said they have failed.

Some directors objected to Sheehy's attempt to add help for the board. They said it amounted to micromanagement and would be “demotivating” for top CIRM management. Sheehy flared at comments by Ed Penhoet, former co-founder of Chiron, that singling out a specific individual to be added to staff constituted micromanagement. Sheehy said the Penhoet's comments were “condescending,” something that Penhoet said later that he did not intend.

Board Chairman Robert Klein said the concerns of the patient were legitimate. He said,
“The organization is under stress.”
Sheehy said, however, that Klein has failed to address the concerns for much too long.

Director Michael Friedman, CEO of the City of Hope in Los Angeles, noted that CIRM has not reached its legal cap of 50 employees, suggesting it could be fully staffed to help solve some of the issues. Director Ted Love, president of Nuvelo of San Carlos, Ca., asked,
"Are we trying to do much too inexpensively?”
He said the staff should not be subjected to “extraordinary unbearable long-term situations.”

CIRM President Alan Trounson indicated that staffing was a bit of a juggling act. He said more persons would be needed in the science office as CIRM gives out more money and adds more complex research to its oversight responsiblities.

At one point, Klein, who says he wrote Prop. 71, said,
“I made the mistake perhaps of setting a 50 person cap.”
Sheehy was upset about the inadequate budget documents presented to the directors' Finance Subcommittee last week. And he said the budget material presented this week also was not up to snuff. He said basic year-to-year financial comparisons remained missing along with “global” figures that would show complete totals for spending in various categories, such as legal and communications. Sheehy said he had asked for budget figures by function, which were not provided. And he declared that the proposed budget amounted to a “dereliction of our fiscal duty.”

Klein bridled at the comment, which he called a “gross distortion.” He said,
“I understand your frustrations but we have a mission. Let's not destroy our mission.”
Ultimately the budget was adopted on a 19-4 vote with the requirement that a 5 percent contingency fund be included. Added also was a requirement that Klein and Trounson come up with a plan within two weeks to solve the board support problem. The board will convene in a teleconference meeting to consider the proposal.

Following Thursday's session, Penhoet said,
“The board deserves more support if they think they need it.”
But Sheehy said, also after the meeting, he had little faith that the issue would be properly resolved, given past performance.

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