House Commission Created to Reorganize CRMC Calls Process Heavy Lift; Changes Not Expected This Year
May 2, 2022
PROVIDENCE — A special legislative commission looking at ways to reorganize the troubled Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) will wrap up its work this year without a pathway to significant legislation.
The House commission has examined either outright abolishing the overseeing council, which has final say in the agency, or gutting its powers by changing it into an advisory board. But changing the structure, permitting process or enforcement requires approval from the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Commission chairwoman Rep. Deborah Ruggiero, D-Jamestown, characterized it as a heavy lift.
“It means it would probably not happen this year; it’d be a pretty lengthy process,” Ruggiero said during a study commission meeting last week. “We have only five or six weeks left in our legislative session; we have a pretty short runway.”
The General Assembly would have to pass legislation outlining the changes to CRMC, before the agency presented those changes to NOAA for its consideration — a tall order as the Legislature winds down its session heading into the summer with a state budget to still pass. Ruggiero indicated she wanted to prepare legislation to “come out of the box” for the new session in January.
A joint resolution was filed earlier this month to extend the study commission’s reporting deadline until June 8, with the body set to expire at the end of that month.
But commission members still expressed great interest in making the CRMC board advisory, no matter how long the process took.
“I think we should go on the record strongly that this is the way this commission feels,” said commission member Lawrence Taft, executive director of the Audubon Society of Rhode Island.
CRMC is responsible for the regulating, permitting and overall management of Rhode Island’s some 420 miles of coastline. While agency staff is commonly praised by both the public and state/municipal officials, the council is a voting body of political appointees with typically little professional experience in zoning or coastal management. The agency has a staff of about 30 and a $5 million annual budget, half funded from federal dollars, with the state covering the other half.
The voting council is the source of plenty of controversy for the agency, with a reputation for either ignoring staff or expert recommendations and an unclear decision-making process.
Study commission members deliberated about putting “guard rails” onto council members with specific qualifications or opening representation beyond the state’s coastal communities.
The House commission also considered making the executive director a governor appointee, a change that would give far more power to the state executive in coastal management than it had before. Not all commission members were pleased with the suggestion.
“I don’t have a proposed solution, but that could make the executive director ineffective or the council ineffective,” said Paula Bontempi, dean of the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography.
Gov. Dan McKee’s fiscal 2023 budget contains $15,000 for a part-time hearing officer, a longtime ask of CRMC critics, but that hearing officer — an attorney — would still be allowed to practice law in other areas, something which would break ethics or firewall rules in other state departments. Commission members agreed this budget item was unworkable.
“You’re not going to find anyone with Esq after their name who’s working for $15,000 a year and not practicing privately; the article is absurd on its face,” commission member Rep. Michael Chippendale, R-Foster, said. “It either needs to be a well-funded position that an attorney can live on while being restricted to this, or another solution.”
The study commission is expected to meet one more time to review its findings and write a final report.
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