Government

Confirmation of CRMC Executive Director Willis to be Voted on in Senate

First time lawmakers will confirm head position, instead of agency's board

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CRMC chair Raymond Coia, left, and executive director Jeff Willis listen to testimony about the proposed Revolution Wind project. (Mary Lhowe/ecoRI News)

PROVIDENCE — Lawmakers are on the cusp of confirming the executive director for the Coastal Resources Management Council, a first for the agency in its 53-year history.

Jeff Willis has served as CRMC’s director for nearly four years; the agency’s 10-member, all-volunteer, part-time, unpaid executive board unanimously appointed him in September 2020. Most state agencies, like CRMC’s inland counterpart, the Department of Environmental Management, have their chiefs appointed by the sitting governor and confirmed by the Senate.

But CRMC, dating back to its early days, has a different mode of governance. Instead, the governor appoints and the Senate confirms most of its executive body, who Willis and his predecessors report to on all agency matters.

Calls for reforming the agency and neutering the council entirely have crystallized since 2020, after the politically appointed board made a series of controversial decisions that landed it in court.

Reformers notched a small win last year, when the General Assembly passed a law taking the power to appoint the CRMC director away from its council and giving it to the governor.

Willis told legislators in a Senate Environment and Agriculture Committee confirmation hearing May 29 that the state’s coastal program was “in very good shape.”

“The job is about relationships; in any walk of life it’s about the relationships you build,” Willis said. “The better relationships you build, the better you can get the job done.

“Everybody understands how difficult it can be, everybody understands the balance of uses that compete against each other. But if we develop those relationships and foster them and keep them moving forward, I think Rhode Island’s coastline will be better off for it.”

Willis has worked for the agency since 1988, originally serving as a research intern, before being hired as a research associate later that year, and assisting the development of the agency’s harbor management plan process and the Pawcatuck River Estuary Interstate Special Area Management Plan.

He helped coordinate the dredging of the Providence River in the early ’90s — where he picked up the name “Dredge Willis,” according to a 2002 agency newsletter — and from 1994 to 2002 worked as policy division supervisor. In 2002 he was promoted to deputy director, a position he held until he was chosen to replace outgoing agency director Grover Fugate in 2020.

Willis collected a number of endorsements during his hearing from environmental attorneys, consultants, and conservation groups, including Providence-based SAGE Environmental, Save The Bay, and The Nature Conservancy of Rhode Island.

“Our future is uncertain, we face many unprecedented challenges in our state, by climate change, sea level rise, and the pressures of coastal development,” said Rich Mandile, principal at SAGE Environmental. “With a very real understanding of these challenges, I can say with certainty that Jeff is the right person to be at the helm, navigating us into the future that we all share.”

Critics of CRMC’s council, such as Topher Hamblett, executive director of Save The Bay, praised Willis’ work as director, and emphasized the need for agency reform. Lawmakers are currently considering a pair of bills that would remove the council and change it into an advisory body, altering CRMC into something closer to a department agency like DEM.

The bills received cool receptions from leadership in the House and Senate, and have yet to receive up or down votes out of committee as the legislative session comes to a close. Hamblett, along with the Rhode Island attorney general and other groups, called on leadership to pass the legislation reforming the agency at a press conference last week, stressing it was a “good government” issue.

“As we make that transition, I can think of no one better to lead that transition for the agency than Jeff Willis,” Hamblett told lawmakers.

Willis’ nomination was passed unanimously out of committee and is expected to receive a full vote of the Senate sometime this week.

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