Monday, June 08, 2009

Stem Cell Directors Ruffled by Voting Changes

The California Legislature has long had a practice of voting that has kept the wheels of government churning and enhanced the power of already important committee chairman. It is known as “holding the roll open.”

The practice made a controversial debut in May at the California stem cell agency, triggering a sharp exchange between Chairman Robert Klein and some directors.

As a result, the procedure and possible guidelines for its use are now on the agenda next week of the board of directors of the California stem cell agency.

Here is how it works in legislative committees, which are always plagued with absenteeism. A bill is presented to the panel and discussed. A vote is taken. If insufficient votes exist to pass, the chairman of the committee can hold the roll call vote open until the committee adjourns, often hours later. That allows absent lawmakers to pop in and vote without having heard any of the discussion. Lawmakers presenting legislation may also ask to hold the roll open until they can drag in their supporters. Of course, the chairman can close the roll and thus kill a bill.

Because of absenteeism, CIRM has been plagued with an inability to reach the super-majority quorum requirements mandated by Prop. 71. Some of the pressures have eased since limited teleconference participation has been permitted for some members for CIRM board meetings.

Holding roll call votes open would help grease CIRM's wheels, but some directors were not happy with the introduction of the procedure at the May 12 teleconference board meeting. The session involved support of industry-backed federal legislation having to do with patent protection of biotech therapies.

At one point, Director Oswald Steward, chair and director of the Reeve, Irvine Research Center, University of California, Irvine, raised questions about the voting procedure. According to the transcript, Steward said,
“I just don't understand why this process has been invoked now today, and I have to say in a very strange way.”
Other directors joined in with their reservations. Steward then said he was "a little offended" by the voting practice.

At that point, an obviously irritated Klein (based on the audiocast of the meeting), snapped,
"Hold on. Excuse me. Point of order here."
Directors raising issues about the voting procedure included Philip Pizzo, dean of the Stanford School of Medicine; Gerald Levey, dean of the UCLA School of Medicine, and Jeff Sheehy, director for communications, UCSF AIDS Research Institute.

Pizzo caught the flavor of most of the concerns. He said that permitting roll call votes to be held open would affect the “quality of our discussions.”

Pizzo said,
"Whereas, I like the idea of facilitating the process, I think at a subsequent (board) meeting we should discuss it because it does impact on our culture and how we do things."
He continued,
"I think we've been enriched over the years by hearing each other's point of view. I worry that we're going to wind up coming in with prefixed ideas that don't necessarily allow themselves to be attentive to new insights."
Klein did not directly address those concerns in May but said he would put the voting procedure before the entire board next week in San Diego.

While the practice offers some efficiency, differences exist between legislative committees and the CIRM board. Lawmakers could be reasonably well-informed on a measure without hearing the debate. They have in their hands well prior to the committee meetings a thorough-going analysis of bills before the committee, their pros and cons and a list of opponents and supporters. That never happens at CIRM.

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