But at its heart lay matters of trust between two strong executives in a new, $3 billion organization hobbled by an inflexible structure virtually impossible to change.
The flap surfaced at the May 19 meeting of CIRM's Governance Subcommittee. The nominal topic was internal policy at the California stem cell agency – normally a soporific subject. But all were alert when the focus fell on who decides which staff members will have offices with windows and who approves travel – Robert Klein, chair of the CIRM Oversight Committee, or Zach Hall, president of CIRM?
The details, however, are less important than what they reveal about CIRM, the Oversight Committee, its two top executives and their relationship.
The transcript of the session exposes an organizational rawness that rarely is seen in public from any business or government agency. Most of the members of the Oversight Committee have undoubtedly encountered comparable situations from time to time in their careers as managers and executives. But dealing with it was troubling for some.
"If there's just not a level of trust with the president and the office of the chair...it causes me great concern and heartache," said David Serrano-Sewell, a member of the Oversight Committee and a patient advocate. He added that "a million people are coming after us" and that the agency did not need internal dissension.
Another member of the Oversight Committee, Claire Pomeroy, dean of the UC Davis Medical School, was among others concerned about the relationship between Klein and Hall. "If we have a situation where our chair does not trust the president will make appropriate decisions about the travel budget and office space, then that's a larger issue," she said.
Normally such a management split could be resolved relatively easily or avoided entirely by an organization's board of directors – the Oversight Committee, in the case of CIRM. But the voter-approved law that created the stem cell agency spells out in statutory language the specific duties of the president and chair of the agency and creates something of a dual executive situation. Many of Klein's and Hall's responsibilities are locked into state law that cannot be touched by the legislature for two years or so, and then changed only by a super-majority vote of both houses and the signature of the governor.
Adding to the complexity is the 29-member Oversight Committee, a quasi-legislative body attempting to act as an executive committee. The group does reasonably well as a deliberative body, but sometimes it resembles nothing more than an elephant trying to dance as it wrestles with its executive chores. In this case, months ago it approved organizational details that created more overlap in the dual executive situation. That might not have been a problem if Hall or Klein were a weaker leader or manager. But both are strong, capable executives, albeit with different personalities and styles.
The issues reflect "tensions and challenges" rumbling through CIRM for the past year, according to Oversight Committee member Philip Pizzo, dean of the Stanford University School of Medicine. Those tensions surfaced when Hall presented the Governance Subcommittee with a draft of CIRM's mostly routine internal policies. He said that he and Klein were in agreement except for two issues – who controls office assignments and travel, particularly out-of-state travel.
The two men have discussed the matters since September, when Hall was named permanent CIRM president, but he said they have been unable to resolve their differences. Hall asked for a decision by the subcommittee.
He said he was held accountable for the activities of all CIRM employees, including those assigned to the "office of the chair."
"I need to be sure that both whatever is done are things that I can defend as a responsible manager and administrator of the institute and also that policies are applied consistently across the institute so that we're one organization and not two....I feel very strongly about it," Hall said.Later he said in reference to such matters as assignment of offices,
"All these little status things sound small, but in actual fact they weigh heavily often in terms of people's morale and the sense that there's a set of rules and that they're applied fairly to all people."For Klein as well, it was a matter of responsibility. He said,
"First of all, the chairman is responsible as an individual to the board and to the public. and if the chairman isn't responsible, there shouldn't be the chairman."He also said,
"I don't want responsibility without the ability to perform. And what's important here is that the office of the chair is responsible to the board for many functions. And if we're going to micromanage the ability to perform those functions, the office of the chair, whether I fill it or you get somebody else to fill it, will not be able to perform."As the discussion intensified, Klein responded to one question by saying:
"I'm limited out...I'm really at the edge where if I'm going to be able to perform, having another level of approvals is just so redundant, that I question the organization and the burdens being put on me and whether they're reasonable."Ultimately the subcommittee approved a motion that said expenses for travel exceeding those budgeted for the office of the chair must be approved by the president. Hall and Klein were directed to work out a "peaceable solution" on a system for office assignments, with the assistance of Tina Nova, CEO of Genoptix, Inc., and also a member of the Oversight Committee. "If there is disagreement," the motion said, "it is the president's final approval authority that stands."
The split could surface again on Friday when the internal policies of CIRM come before the Oversight Committee in a public session. The matter may arise as well behind closed doors as a personnel issue.
The fundamental problem, however, is not going to go away easily, as more than one Oversight Committee remarked.
For a look at how Klein views the specifics on the travel issue, see the item below that includes comments from Hall and others. Klein's office is budgeted $30,000 for travel for the current fiscal year, up from $20,000 earlier. The office of the president is budgeted $6,000 for travel, up from $5,000. Another $5,000 is also budgeted for travel by the agency's science and administration offices. For the first six months of the next fiscal year, $37,000 is budgeted for all CIRM travel.
You can find the full transcript of the subcommittee hearing here. The discussion begins on page 54. A cautionary note: It is easily to misunderstand emotions and emphasis in raw transcripts that are missing voice inflection and other nuances. Read with care.