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Stem cell meeting called a 'mystery': The state panel's agenda lacks details, critics say

by Laura MecoySacramento Bee
January 6th, 2005

LOS ANGELES - After scuttling much of its first meeting's agenda in response to the complaints of open-government advocates, California's newly created stem cell oversight board is coming under fire for turning its second gathering into a "mystery meeting."
The panel, created by the Nov. 2 voter approval of Proposition 71, is scheduled to meet today at the University of Southern California to begin consideration of how to hire a president, where to put its offices and other issues.

But open-government advocates and Proposition 71 opponents said the board's agenda is too vague for the public or its own members to understand what will be considered today.

"The descriptions of the issues to be addressed are inadequate, and there's no backup documentation for the members of the public," said Marcy Darnovsky, associate executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society. "It's a mystery meeting. I don't know why they keep kicking themselves in the foot."

Darnovsky and open-government advocates also called for committee members to sell their biomedical holdings and any real estate interests that might benefit from the $3 billion in state bond money the board will allocate for stem cell research.

In addition, they urged committee Chairman Robert Klein II to step down from his chairmanship of a nonprofit group he formed after successfully leading the campaign for Proposition 71's approval.

The nonprofit group, the California Research and Cures Coalition, is holding a series of community forums to address ethical, scientific and other issues surrounding the state's new stem cell research program.

Klein told The Bee last year he would resign from the coalition's chairmanship if he became chairman of the stem cell oversight panel.

The stem cell oversight panel elected him chairman Dec. 17, and he hasn't stepped down from the nonprofit group's chairmanship yet.

Neither he nor the stem cell committee's vice chairman, Edward Penhoet, returned calls seeking comment Wednesday.

Committee member Claire Pomeroy said she was aware of the criticism about the meeting's agenda but the panel hasn't "done all that much yet that we could be secretive about."

"The fact that the agenda was truncated at the first meeting in response to the concerns that were raised about the open-meeting law was a very appropriate response, and so I hope that people feel that they are being listened to," she said. "I also hope ... that we keep the big picture in mind here, and the big picture is to help patients and get the science done."

Nathan Barankin, the attorney general's spokesman, said the state's lawyers had been advising the stem cell panel on its upcoming meeting and were discussing what issues could be addressed today.

"The commission is its own entity and has been created from scratch," Barankin said. "Right now, it has no staff ... and there's a lot of kinks the commission is working its way through that will sort themselves out as it gets staff hired."

At its first meeting, the Independent Citizens Oversight Committee failed to notify the public 10 days in advance, as required by law, of the issues it planned to address. As a result, its only actions were to elect a chairman and a vice chairman.

It met the notification deadline for its second meeting. But Terry Francke, Californians Aware general counsel, said the panel created "needless confusion" by failing to provide the documents needed to understand the matters the board will address.

For instance, the panel has provided no information on what bylaws, procedures or policies its agenda says the committee will consider today.

Francke urged the board to take no action on any item for which the details were missing.

Charles Halpern, a public-interest lawyer, said that the panel issued its meeting notice Christmas Eve and told those seeking additional information to call an office that was closed for a week during the 10-day notice period.

Open-government advocates have focused on the committee's compliance with open-meeting laws because of these early problems and Proposition 71's exemptions from the state's open-meeting law.

For instance, the initiative says the oversight committee can close its doors when it considers confidential intellectual property or confidential scientific research.

It also exempts from the open-meeting law and the state's financial reporting requirements the members of Proposition 71's working groups, which have not yet been appointed. But today's agenda calls for the creation of a committee to recommend members to these groups.

The working groups are supposed to be composed of leading scientists and other experts who will evaluate and make recommendations to the oversight committee on which research and construction requests to fund.

Francke said exempting the working groups from the state's open-meeting law would be analogous to similarly exempting legislative committees that conduct the most detailed examinations of Assembly and Senate bills.

Francke urged the stem cell oversight panel to clarify the exemptions for itself and open the working groups to the public.

Darnovsky and Halpern also urged the committee to require working group members to disclose their financial holdings to ensure none are benefiting from the decisions they are making.

"They should hold their meeting and set things in place so they can do it right from here on," Darnovsky said.

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