California stem cell czar offered top pay, asked to name job description 

The new chairman of California’s stem cell agency could have a salary of more than $500,000, making him one of the highest-paid public officials in the state.

Or, he could be paid a mere $150,000 — for a half-time position.

Exactly what the new leader’s salary will be — and just as importantly, what his role will be — has deeply divided the leadership of the state’s $3 billion research-funding agency, the taxpayer-backed California Institute of Regenerative Medicine.

For more than six months, the agency’s board has debated the issue and, having come to no consensus, it has now left it up to the two candidates for the position to make a case for what their job description, time commitment and salary should be.

For the past six years, the man credited with creating the agency, Robert Klein, has been its chairman — a position he is technically being paid $150,000 to work at half-time. Klein wrote the ballot initiative that voters approved in 2004, granting $3 billion in state bond money for study of embryonic stem cells, with the promise of potentially curing some of the world’s most tenacious diseases, including cancer, AIDS and diabetes.

But Klein’s role in the agency has been a lightning rod for controversy: many complain that he has been extremely involved and controlling of the day-to-day operations of the agency.

In 2009, California’s Little Hoover Commission criticized CIRM’s governance structure, noting that Klein’s “actions and personal style” and the fact that he essentially wrote his own résumé into the requirements for chairman, create a situation that “distorts accountability and succession planning and could, in the event of an abrupt departure of the individual, leave the agency leaderless for an extended period.”

In fact, the agency was nearly left leaderless last fall, when Klein vowed to step down from his post, but then the man he supported to succeed him withdrew his nomination following a flurry of accusations of backroom deals. Ultimately, the board backed Klein to stay another six months while they found another successor.

After that, the board tasked itself with determining exactly what it wanted in a new chairman. But despite numerous discussions in public hearings and an anonymous survey of the board, members never came to a consensus over the job description, the time commitment or the salary.

The maximum salary allowed for the position is $508,000 for a full-time position.

Now, the candidates are being asked to lay out what their vision — and salary requests — are. Two candidates have been nominated: investment banker Jonathan Thomas and Dr. Frank Litvack, currently a general partner in a medical device incubator in Menlo Park.

David Jenson, who has exhaustively blogged about the agency, reported last week that Klein was backing Thomas — though Klein later vehemently denied any involvement in the succession process.

When contacted by The San Francisco Examiner, Thomas said he was grateful to be nominated for the position, but declined to say where he stood on what his job description or salary should be. Jenson has reported that he is looking for a more full-time, involved position.

State Controller John Chiang, who has backed Litvack, implied in his nomination letter that Litvack would take on a more traditional oversight role, rather than the controversial fingers-in-the-pie role that Klein has imposed. If chosen, Litvack may also save the state money, according to Chiang’s nomination letter.

“He will serve in the position at the lowest salary being offered, irrespective of his commitment to spend whatever amount of time is necessary,” Chiang wrote.

The board is scheduled to chose between the nominees — or reject them both — on June 22.

kworth@sfexaminer.com

 

How they stack up

Salaries of other noteworthy California public employees:

Governor $174,000
Lieutenant governor $130,000
Mayor of San Francisco $248,000
Highest possible salary for CIRM chairman $508,000

 

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Katie Worth

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