CRMC Gets New Deputy Director After Repeated Delays
January 30, 2023
WAKEFIELD, R.I. — After months of delays, the state Coastal Resources Management Council finally has a new deputy director.
Laura Miguel was picked earlier this month to replace James Boyd, who retired last June after 22 years, for the No. 2 spot at the agency. Miguel has more than 30 years of experience at CRMC, and previously led its enforcement division.
The Rhode Island Department of Administration (DOA) had placed a hold on all personnel action requests from CRMC last August, according to records obtained by ecoRI News last fall. The hold included three other unfilled jobs within the agency: a new coastal policy analyst; a marine infrastructure coordinator; and a hearing officer to adjudicate contested matters before the CRMC.
The reason for last summer’s hold remains unclear. In October a DOA public affairs officer told ecoRI News the governor’s office had some “process questions” about the hiring of a new deputy director, and said nothing was frozen.
“This is an important position, and the hiring process is continuing,” the spokesperson wrote.
It’s the latest controversy to rankle the coastal management agency. Despite being virtually unknown to many Rhode Islanders, CRMC is a lodestar for state climate policy. With a staff of just over 30 people and a budget of only $5.3 million — half of which comes from the federal government — the agency regulates coastal development and processes permits for new aquaculture farms, offshore wind projects, and private housing developments close to state waters. Despite its small size, the agency estimates it processes some 1,100 applications annually.
The agency has a jurisdiction area that includes some 420 miles of state coastline, ranging from 200 feet inland to 3 miles out to sea.
Many of the applications deal with requests for boat docks, boat lifts, seawalls, residential renovations, and new construction. CRMC also identifies and protects public rights-of-way to the shoreline, tracks coastal flooding, and maps potential future damage from climate change.
But despite its key place in the Ocean State, the agency is hamstrung by lack of funding, lack of staffing, and old-fashioned Rhode Island politics.
Unlike the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management or most cabinet-level state agencies, CRMC’s executive director does not report directly to the governor. Overseeing the agency’s staff and work is an executive council that has final say over agency decisions, including overriding or ignoring staff recommendations.
The 10-member council is composed of nine political appointees — selected by the governor and approved by the Senate — and one DEM designee. There are few restrictions on who can be appointed to the council, mostly limited to coastal communities of a certain type and public officials. Appointees are not expected to have backgrounds in coastal policy, law, or other related technical expertise.
If CRMC does make waves in the headlines, its typically from a controversial decision by the agency. The council approved the expansion of Champlin’s Marina into Block Island’s Great Salt Pond at the end of 2020 in executive session after the council’s legal counsel, Anthony DeSisto, helped broker a mediated settlement that excluded New Shoreham officials.
Earlier this month the council chose to send a last-minute modification of Perry Raso’s 3-acre aquaculture farm application back to staff for further study, an unusual move since the project was already recommended for approval by staff. The ad hoc subcommittee formed to study the application originally went against the staff’s report and recommendation, and voted to recommend that the full council reject the aquaculture application.
The council was also paralyzed from early April to the end of June last year, when its members could not reach quorum during that time. Canceled meetings lead to delays in approval of projects before the agency.
Last year the General Assembly’s study commission on reorganizing CRMC released its final recommendations to the Legislature. The commission ultimately recommended changing the council from an executive to advisory function, aligning the executive director’s powers more on par with DEM.
But those changes are a heavy lift: a change of who is in charge at CRMC requires approval the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Commission chair Rep. Deb Ruggiero, D-Jamestown, submitted a package of bills to reform the agency, including one that would require future appointments to the council have qualifications in specific areas and limit members terms to three successive appointments.
Other bills introduced angling to reform CRMC included legislation allowing public comment at the agency’s administrative hearings, and one requiring agency staff to hire a full-time staff attorney. (The commission also recommended hiring a hearing officer, but that requires the governor to appoint one.)
The future of agency reform remains uncertain. Rep. Art Handy, D-Cranston, who introduced the legislation mandating a staff attorney for CRMC, has said he intends to reintroduce the bill in this session.
But Ruggiero declined to run for re-election last year, and it’s unclear who will pick up the other bills aimed at CRMC reform. Legislative advocates with Save The Bay said CRMC reform is a key priority for the organization this year and are working on getting the bills introduced and passed.
Meanwhile, CRMC’s council still has two open seats available. Olivia DaRocha, press secretary for Gov. Dan McKee, said executive appointments were a priority for the governor, but did not say when the governor’s office would submit additional names for Senate confirmation.
McKee’s office made three appointments last year. He reappointed Donald Gomez, a retired Navy undersea warfare technician and Little Compton resident, who has served on the CRMC board since 2007.
The governor also appointed Stephen Izzi, a Cranston lawyer in private practice and former partner at the law firm Moses Ryan, and Catherine Robinson Hall, a former DEM staff attorney and coastal policy professor.
Three current members of the council are still serving on expired terms. Acting chair Raymond Coia, an administrator at the New England Laborers’ Health and Safety Fund, was originally appointed in 2003. His most recent term expired in 2020.
Saunderstown resident, real estate agent, and liquor store owner Jerry Sahagian has served on the council since 2002. His most recent term also expired in 2020.
East Greenwich resident and Newport planning director Patricia Reynolds’ term expired in 2020.
McKee’s first CRMC appointment to the board was Narragansett resident and renewable energy executive Lindsay McGovern in 2021.
Council members serve for three years, but in reality the specific length of their term is meaningless. State law allows council members to keep serving until a replacement is appointed and confirmed by the Senate, extending terms almost indefinitely and allowing council members to escape a confirmation hearing.
As of press time none of the CRMC reform bills had been reintroduced.
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