Sunday, June 12, 2011

CIRM Directors Tackle Touchy Management Issues

Key leaders of the California stem cell agency have scheduled a 60-minute meeting tomorrow to decide long-standing, thorny matters at the $3 billion enterprise, ranging from the province of the new chairman and the current president to just exactly who is a senior officer of CIRM.

The matters, which come under the rubric of "internal governance policy," have been around for some time – in some cases for years, particularly the much-criticized dual executive arrangement involving the chair and the president. In this latest episode, only bits and piece of that management issue have surfaced. (Here are links to an introductory memo and the text of the proposal.)

The proposed changes in the structure of CIRM involve both major and minor matters, including the agency's bond financing and budgeting and adding staff in the chair's office, boosting it from eight to nine persons. Currently CIRM has about 50 employees. The board has 29 members.

The governance proposals were originally prepared by CIRM President Alan Trounson and grew out of the evaluation last year of his performance by the CIRM governing board. The plan has triggered an unusual exchange of memos on the agency's web site that illustrates the contentiousness of some of the issues. First is a "Memo from two staff members to Governance Subcommittee of Board." Then comes a "Memo from Vice-Chair Senator Art Torres in response to memo from two staff members."

The nomenclature describing the memos has significance. The description is controlled by the office of the chair, which posts material to meeting agendas -- in this case the directors' Governance Subcommittee, which is the group that meets tomorrow. The memo from "two staff members" did not originate with ordinary CIRM employees but Trounson and Ellen Feigal, who is the recently hired No. 2 executive at CIRM with the title of vice president for research and development.

The "two staff members" memo takes issue with a number of provisions in the proposed internal governance policy. The memo also appears to seek a 30-day delay in considering the plan. At that time, Trounson and Feigal propose consideration of a presidential reoganization plan as well as another from the new chair, who is to be chosen June 22-23 at a meeting in San Diego.

Among other things, the Trounson-Feigal memo says the new chair may not be qualified to supervise public meeting and conflict of interest issues as well as the legal and financial accountability of the CIRM board. Thus, they suggest a provision to that effect in the new policy should be deleted. Trounson and Feigal said the executive director of the CIRM board and the new public media director should not – and they underlined not – be considered senior officers of CIRM. They also said the new position of chief financial officer, who will direct budget and bond financing matters, should reside in the office of the president for the purposes of budgeting. Presumably that would give the president a bigger handle on the compensation for the CFO, who is supposed to report to both the chair and the president.

In his response, CIRM co-vice chairman Torres took issue with nearly everything in the Trounson memo.

All this involves devilish details that can add up to much more than their surface appearance. During debate last month on the plan at both the Governance Subcommittee and the full board meetings, the discussion became so touchy (see debate excerpt below) that the committee and the board felt compelled to go into executive session. During the board meeting, Trounson exited the room before the topic came up. Feigal and Elona Baum, CIRM general counsel, were left to represent his position and ran into some resistance from board members.

Given that a new chairman is yet to be elected, two board members, co-vice Chairman Duane Roth, a San Diego businessman, and Claire Pomeroy, dean of the UC Davis Medical School, have objected to action on the plan, even though it is couched as a "starting point." The response has been that the plan has been in the works since Trounson's evaluation last year and needs to be moved forward.

It would be easy to dismiss the flap over internal governance as inside bureaucratic baseball. But the proposal and discussion about it highlight issues at the heart of how CIRM does its business for the people of California. Without effective management, it is not at all certain that taxpayers will get a meaningful return on their $6 billion investment (including interest). The issues also speak to the limitations and handicaps that Prop. 71, drafted by outgoing Chairman Robert Klein, places on the research effort. The 10,000-word proposal wrote into state law management minutia, which is now nearly impossible to change, also because of Prop. 71. Beyond that, CIRM and its conduct are  providing a civics lesson in whether the ballot initiative process can or should be used in connection with complex California issues. Finally, how CIRM conducts its affairs will have major impact on the hESC research worldwide and help determine whether the public supports stem cell research or regards it as something less than worthy.

Also on Monday's agenda is the first-ever code of conduct for the CIRM board. (See here and here.)

If you are interested in taking part or listening in on Monday's meeting, teleconference locations are available throughout California, including San Francisco, Los Angeles, South San Francisco, La Jolla, Irvine, Stanford and Palo Alto. Specific addresses can be found on the meeting agenda.

Here is an exchange from the May 4 CIRM board meeting debate on the internal governance policy.
CIRM Management -- Excerpt from debate at the directors meeting May 4, 2011 Sphere: Related Content

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