Friday, July 31, 2009

Call for CIRM Reform to be Heard by Agency Board

Recommendations for sweeping changes in the $3 billion California stem cell agency come before its board of directors next Thursday, including one proposal that would trim the unwieldy 29-member board to 15.

The full board will hear an interim report on the recommendations by the Little Hoover Commission, the state's good government agency. The meeting will follow a session the same day of its Legislative Subcommittee.

Earlier this month, the subcommittee opposed five proposals by the commission contained in an 88-page report entitled, “Stem Cell Research: Strengthening Governance to Further the Voters' Mandate.” The rejected recommendations included a reduction in the size of the board and a move to curtail the power of its chairman, Robert Klein.

One CIRM director, Jeff Sheehy, has said the Hoover Commission offered some “reasonable suggestions.” Late last month, Sheehy said he was disappointed by the “vigorous negative response” from CIRM.

Prior to next Thursday's meeting of the full board, the Legislative Subcommittee will discuss nine other Hoover recommendations, including polling scientists who review grants about whether they would resign if they must publicly disclose their financial interests.

The grant review group makes the de facto decisions on grant applications, although the board has the final legal authority. In practice, the board almost never overturns reviewers' recommendations either to fund or not to fund a specific grant.

Other Hoover proposals include:
  • Elimination of the 50 employee cap, which is unnecessary given that there is also a cap on administrative spending. The limit on staff has created a heavy reliance on outside contracting.

  • Adoption of a succession plan for leadership and a transition plan when bond funding is no longer available. State bonds are virtually the source of cash for CIRM.

  • Identification of all applicants for a grant. Currently only successful applicants are identified. Identification of all applicants would allow the public to see what is not being funded and allow better assessment of whether certain areas of science are being overlooked.

  • A performance audit of CIRM by a special oversight committee chaired by the state's top fiscal officer, the state controller.
Responding to a query, John M. Simpson, stem cell project director for Consumer Watchdog of Santa Monica, Ca., said,
"The (board) needs to spend its time thinking about and acting on many of the issues raised in the report. Number one on my list would be succession planning now that Bob Klein has made it clear he won't be chairman after 2010. Another important thing to deal with is the revised strategic plan that has been lingering in draft form since last December.”
Some of the recommendations being considered on Thursday would require legislative action – an unprecedented, super, supermajority 70 percent vote mandated by Prop. 71, the ballot initiative that created CIRM, plus the signature of the governor. No other California legislation requires a 70 percent vote, including raising taxes and passing a budget.

Earlier this month, the Legislative Subcommittee rejected the more sweeping recommendations largely on the grounds of its own attorney's opinion that they would require a vote of the people – an even more challenging political feat than gaining a 70 percent vote of the legislature.

A memo to other directors from Klein and Art Torres, co-vice chairman of the board and chairman of the Legislative Subcommittee, said that if those changes were adopted only by the legislature, it would be unconstitutional.

They said,
“As members of the board, we took an oath to uphold Proposition 71 and could not support these proposed changes.”
Legal opinions, however, are just that -- opinions. Another equally skilled attorney could come to an entirely different conclusion.

The opinion from the board's attorney was ordered up by Klein before the final report by the Hoover Commission was released. It placed the CIRM board in a box. To do anything but follow the opinion could be construed as a repudiation of Klein and CIRM's outside legal counsel.

The subcommittee session and the full board meeting will be available to the public via numerous locations statewide. The subcommittee meeting begins at 1 p.m. With the full board to follow at 4 p.m. The full board is expected to take up the Hoover recommendations again in August.

Specific addresses can be found on the subcommittee agenda and the board agenda.

The full text of Simpson's remarks can be found in the item below. Sphere: Related Content

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