Vital Positions at Rhode Island’s Coastal Management Agency Remain Unfilled
October 10, 2022
WAKEFIELD, R.I. — It’s been more than three months since the second in command for the state’s coastal regulation agency retired, and it remains unclear when a new one will be hired.
After a storied 22-year career with the agency, deputy director James Boyd officially retired from the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) earlier this year. His duties have been fulfilled on an interim basis since July by Laura Miguel, the agency’s longtime enforcement chief.
The reason for the delay may go higher in state government than the 30-person coastal agency. Emails obtained by ecoRI News via an open records request indicate the state Department of Administration (DOA) put all personnel action requests from CRMC on hold in mid-August.
Laura Hart, the chief public affairs officer for the DOA, said in an email to ecoRI News that Gov. Dan McKee’s office had some process questions regarding the hiring of a new deputy director for CRMC.
“This is an important position, and the hiring process is continuing,” Hart wrote. “While the governor’s office had some process questions regarding the hiring of the deputy director position, nothing is frozen.”
Other key staffing positions within the agency also remain unfilled, including a new coastal policy analyst position (budgeted at about $124,000) and an independent hearing officer (budgeted around $150,000) to adjudicate contested matters for the agency. Both roles were included in the General Assembly’s budget this year, with the hearing officer requiring advice and consent of the Senate.
Boyd wasn’t the first staff member to retire and not be replaced. Janet Freedman, formerly a coastal geologist for CRMC, retired in January 2021, and that role remains unfilled.
According to emails obtained by ecoRI News, CRMC has posted the geologist’s job and gone through the entire hiring process two times as of last month. Both times the agency made an offer, the person declined the job, saying their current employer had offered them more money.
The position is important to the agency, according to an email from the office of the governor: “CRMC is in a tough spot because the vacant position handles all of their coastal geologic, beach and sediment movement matters but also contributes to their daily permit application reviews work load and requires this specialized skill set.”
The agency has indicated it wants to raise the coastal geologist salary range to remain competitive, but the request has yet to receive a public hearing before the state Classified Pay Board, an issue the governor’s office has endeavored to fix, according to the emails.
Another staff vacancy is also on the horizon. Per emails released to ecoRI News, the CRMC is also seeking to fill a marine infrastructure coordinator position with the state Office of Management and Budget (OMB) which, as of mid-September, was still on hold.
An OMB spokesperson did not answer ecoRI News’ inquiries on the status of those positions by press time.
The CRMC remains one of the state’s most understaffed and underfunded agencies given the scope of its mission. It’s expected to manage a jurisdictional area covering all 400-plus miles of the state’s coastline, ranging from 200 feet landward to 3 miles out to sea, with a staff of 30 and an overall budget averaging $5 million annually.
Its land-based counterpart, the state Department of Environmental Management, has more than 400 employees and a budget greater than $100 million. Despite their comparatively meager funding and personnel, CRMC staff have a stellar reputation nationwide for the work the agency accomplishes.
But one of the most common criticisms of the agency remains: not enough money and not enough people. Those points crystallized this year when the legislature created a special study commission on the CRMC.
“My issue is the agency has a $5 million budget,” said commission chair Rep. Deb Ruggiero, D-Jamestown, at a March meeting, “[with] $2.5 million from the state, $2.5 million from the feds and now our state is getting $1.1 billion in federal dollars and there has not been one dollar appropriated or allocated for CRMC.”
Only half of the agency’s budget is allocated from the state’s General Fund; the rest is federal allocations from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. While the specific amount from NOAA changes every year, on an average year it accounts for around half of CRMC’s total budget.
The agency’s other issue remains its structure. Unlike in the DEM, where an agency director makes executive decisions, CRMC instead has a 10-member council making decisions, with members appointed by the sitting governor with advice and consent of the Senate.
But the council often finds itself at the center of controversy over its decisions, which sometimes override the explicit recommendations of CRMC’s staff. It also has difficulty making quorum. The council has canceled six meetings in 2022, which delays final CRMC decisions and hinders applicants with business before the CRMC.
The council has two vacancies, which cannot be filled until the legislative session begins in January.
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