Government

Marine Policy Professor Resigns from Rhode Island Coastal Agency

Catherine Robinson Hall was a former staff attorney for DEM

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PROVIDENCE — Nearly two years after first being appointed to the executive body of the Coastal Resources Management Council, a prominent council member tendered her resignation earlier this month.

Catherine Robinson Hall, a noted professor in coastal policy and a former staff attorney for the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, resigned her position from the CRMC effectively immediately in a letter dated May 22. In her letter, Robinson Hall, who is an associate professor at Williams College’s Center for Environmental Studies, said she was “extremely busy with my work and want to direct more time to my family.”

Robinson Hall acknowledged her term was expiring later this year, and said she understood that Gov. Dan McKee’s office was recommending appointing her for another term.

“I have enjoyed my appointment to the Council and am deeply grateful to you and to the Governor for the opportunity to serve,” Robinson Hall wrote. “I appreciate the support of my recommenders, members of the Senate who confirmed my appointment in 2022 as well as you and other members of the Governor’s Office who support my appointment and recommended me for reappointment.”

Her resignation brings the vacancies on the 10-member executive body up to three. Unlike most state agencies that empower a single office, typically an executive director, with the power to make final executive decisions, CRMC since its creation in the early 1970s has spread this power among its 10-member executive board, now appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate.

“This is a big loss for CRMC and the council,” Topher Hamblett, executive director of Save The Bay, told ecoRI News on Wednesday morning. “We supported Robinson Hall’s nomination to the council because of her expertise, her experience and integrity. She knows marine policy and environmental law. Additionally, she insisted that the council follow its own rules and procedures which the council has failed to do on many occasions, especially in recent years.”

Robinson Hall was the first of two new appointments from McKee in June 2022, during the closing days of that year’s legislative session. Council appointments, as well as agency reform, were a hot topic that year. That spring, the council was hamstrung by a series of quorum issues.

Six members are required to be present under state law for council members to take any actionable votes. The council didn’t meet for two months, from mid-April to mid-June that year, with council members being unable to make these meetings for “health reasons.”

During her confirmation hearings, environmental advocates referred to Robinson Hall as an ideal council member. Prior to the appointment of Robinson Hall, it was typical for CRMC members not to have experience in coastal policy or planning. Previous appointees included a dental hygienist, a liquor store owner and developer, and labor officials.

A spokesperson for McKee told ecoRI News on Wednesday morning the governor’s office is currently in the process of identifying qualified candidates for the council. With less than a month to go in the session, lawmakers have little wiggle room to vet any choices if they’re going to be appointed before they adjourn for the year.

“New nominees should possess those qualifications that Catherine Robinson Hall brought to the council,” Hamblett said. “Save The Bay is supporting removing the council from the structure, which requires NOAA approval. Until NOAA approves that change, Rhode Island’s coastal agency is left with the council and it is imperative that the governor nominates candidates with experience, expertise and a respect for the rules.”

With Robinson Hall gone, here’s who’s left on the council, what they do, and who they represent:

Raymond Coia, officially vice chair of the CRMC board, has been acting chair since the departure of former chair Jennifer Cervenka in 2021. Coia represents Cranston, a coastal community with a population greater than 25,000 people. He works as an administrator at the New England Laborer’s Health and Safety Fund. His last term expired in January 2020.

(Under state law, council members are allowed to serve until someone replaces them, even if their term officially expires.)

Patricia Reynolds, also representing a community, East Greenwich, with more than 25,000 people, and works as the director of planning for the city of Newport. Her last term expired in January 2020.

Donald Gomez, a retired Navy undersea warfare technician, lives in and represents Little Compton, a coastal community with less than 25,000 people. He was last appointed to the council in 2022.

Stephen Izzi, a land-use and development attorney, lives in Cranston and occupies an at-large public seat. Izzi was a partner at the law firm Moses Ryan, working with business clients and real estate matters, until 2020 when he started his own private practice.

Joseph Russolino, a certified public accountant and managing partner at his own firm, Russolino and Young LTD, represents Warwick and was appointed last year. Russolino has had past experience as a member of the Warwick Harbor Management Commission and previously served 22 years on the East Greenwich Planning Board and Zoning Board of Review when he was a longtime resident of the town.

Kevin Flynn, another Warwick resident, was also appointed last year. Flynn has served as vice chair of the city’s planning board, and until he retired in 2015 he was associate director at the Rhode Island Division of Planning.

The final serving member of CRMC is a Department of Environmental Management-appointed designee as ex-officio. On paper it’s meant to be the director of the department, Terry Gray at the moment, but in practice it’s Ronald Gagnon, an administrator in DEM’s Office of Customer and Technical Assistance, who represents the agency at the meetings.

Coia, Reynolds, Gomez, and Gagnon were all members when the council approved the 2020 secret agreement with Champlin’s Marina to allow it to expand on Block Island; a deal which was later thrown out by the Rhode Island Supreme Court. Their presence has made the council a prime target for reform efforts by Attorney General Peter Neronha and environmental groups like Save The Bay.

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