Trio of Bills Would Restructure CRMC, Empower Its Director
March 20, 2023
PROVIDENCE — State lawmakers are taking another crack at overhauling how Rhode Island manages its coastal resources.
A trio of bills under consideration in the House of Representatives would convert the Coastal Resources Management Council from an agency with an executive council to a traditional government department and empower its executive director to take on greater authority (H6034). The legislation would also allow the director to appoint hearing officers who could be shared with other state agencies (H5779), and mandate a full-time lawyer to represent agency staff (H5966).
Similar legislation has been introduced in the Senate.
The bills are aimed at fixing CRMC’s two core problems: a lack of staffing and support from the state’s executive branch, and nerfing the agency’s 10-member executive council who can override staff recommendations by a simple majority vote. Nine of the 10 council members aren’t required to have coastal policy or management expertise, they merely have to be appointed by a sitting governor and confirmed by the Senate. (The tenth member is the director of the Department of Environmental Management or a designee.)
CRMC members over the past five years have included a dental hygienist, a labor official, a renewable energy executive, a retired Navy undersea technician, and the CEO of a chain of physical therapists. Last year, Gov. Dan McKee appointed two lawyers, one with expertise in land use and the other a coastal policy professor and former DEM attorney.
Similar to DEM, CRMC has jurisdiction and permitting authority over a wide swath of the state. The agency has authority over the Ocean State’s 400-plus miles of coastline, from 200 feet landward to 3 miles out to sea, an area which encompasses all of Narragansett Bay.
The legislation would bring it closer in line to how DEM is structured.
Topher Hamblett, director of advocacy for Save The Bay, testified in a House State Government and Elections Committee hearing last week that the CRMC board doesn’t serve the environment or Rhode Island well.
“It’s rife with conflicts of interest,” Hamblett said. “The council is a thick political lawyer over the agency’s staff.”
H6034’s prime sponsor, Rep. Teresa Tanzi, D-Narragansett, told committee members the council has become an unaccountable body, and referred to the agency’s structure as a “relic,” a nationwide outlier compared to similar agencies in other states.
“It’s time to move past the politically well-connected making decisions about our coastal resources,” Tanzi said.
Her bill would also create a citizen’s advisory committee, allowing members of the public to provide input on program improvements and new initiatives. Lack of effective communication with residents was a frequent criticism of CRMC during the Legislature’s study commission last year.
CRMC reform legislation has received support from the Ocean State Aquaculture Association, Clean Water Action, New England Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, and Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Neronha.
But ultimately it has been the council that has attracted the lion’s share of criticism over the years, for its inherently political nature, and its haphazard decision-making process. Most notably for its secret backroom deal with Champlin’s Marina & Resort during the pandemic. The Block Island marina had been seeking approval to double its size since 2003. CRMC denied the application twice, in 2006 and then again in 2013. The Rhode Island Supreme Court upheld the agency’s decision in early 2020.
But later that year the agency decided to go into mediation, with retired Supreme Court Chief Justice Frank J. Williams acting as mediator. A deal was brokered behind closed doors in December 2020 for a 1.5-acre buildout of the marina, but without participation from the town and other intervenors in the case. The state Supreme Court rejected the secret agreement last October.
The deal with Champlin’s was enough to spur the General Assembly to form a House study commission on reforming CRMC, with many of its final recommendations settling on abolishing or neutering the council’s power in some form and bolstering its staff.
Major decisions by the council had to be delayed by several months last year after the body failed to meet quorum several meetings in a row due to council member absences. The council needs six members to meet quorum, but the body hasn’t had 10 appointed members serving since before the pandemic, and as of this year the number of vacancies on it has grown to three. Only two members need to be absent before the council can legally take no votes.
But it’s not just a lack of council members.
The other two bills — H5779, sponsored by Rep. Jason Knight, D-Barrington, and H5966, introduced by Rep. Art Handy, D-Cranston — would mandate the agency hire hearing officers and a dedicated attorney to represent staff.
Hearing officers are lawyers appointed by the state to hear and adjudicate contested cases or violations as they come up before a state agency, similar to a judge. They aren’t hired as traditional state employees as there needs to be a strict firewall between them and other decision-makers in the agency.
But the governor hasn’t appointed hearing officers for the agency. Knight’s legislation would empower the CRMC director to hire a hearing officer after a vacancy of no more than 60 days.
Handy’s bill would enshrine a staff attorney position into law, and disallow that attorney from retaining other clients in private practice to avoid conflicts of interest. The agency was budgeted $150,000 to hire a staff attorney but the position remains vacant.
The CRMC board on the other hand technically has an attorney, Anthony DeSisto, who advises them on legal matters during meetings and represents the council during litigation. But critics contend its ripe for conflicts of interest, as DeSisto keeps a rolodex of clients in private practice, and its inevitable one of them will appear before the council on business.
DeSisto, according to his latest Ethics Commission filing, owns a private practice and also works as the solicitor for the towns of Warren and Lincoln and as a probate judge in Warren.
The exact future of CRMC reform remains unclear, as changing the power or authority of the council requires a heavier lift than usual. The agency’s powers are enshrined in federal law, the Coastal Zone Management Act, which empowers all states to take the lead on development and conservation issues on their shorelines and state waters.
Any fundamental changes to CRMC will have to be approved by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a process that could take up to a year, and that’s only if the Legislature passes the bill stripping the council of its powers.
All three bills have been held for further study.