By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
PROVIDENCE — A Senate bill brings the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) into compliance with state separation-of-powers laws but it fails to address other criticisms of the state agency, such as representation of environmental justice communities.
Since its passage in 2004 by voter referendum, the separation-of-powers amendment prohibited state lawmakers and their appointees from serving on state boards, such as CRMC. Appointees instead are chosen by the governor, with the Senate confirming those candidates.
A subsequent Supreme Court ruling reaffirmed the separation-of-powers amendments, and some 65 state boards have complied with the law. CRMC obeyed part of the decision by keeping members of the General Assembly off its board, but it never fully cleaned up its appointment protocol, nor has it determined how many of the board's members can be chosen by the governor.
During the past 10 years bills to rectify the issue have passed the Senate but never the House.
Fixing that problem was given urgency in April, when Save The Bay filed a complaint in Superior Court seeking clarification on the appointment process. Three current members also needed reappointment by the Senate. The CRMC board subsequently canceled its meetings as it waited for a resolution.
A letter from the environmental justice advocacy group No LNG in PVD delayed the confirmation hearings while Gov. Gina Raimondo’s legal team reviewed its appointment authority.
Meanwhile, the three appointments were granted municipal titles. Critics questioned the securing of municipal titles after the fact and for receiving approval before the legislation passed. The Senate Committee on the Environment and Agriculture confirmed the nominations of Donald Gomez, Michael Hudner and Patricia Reynolds on June 6.
Save The Bay and the Audubon Society of Rhode Island were eventually satisfied that, as an initial step, the CRMC is finally meeting the state's separation-of-power provisions. Save The Bay has long called for changing how the CRMC adjudicates coastal violations and coastal development.
“We have an agency right now where politically appointed members are making decisions on permits and enforcement matters and that is not normal,” Topher Hamblett, Save The Bay’s director of advocacy and policy, said at the June 7 bill hearing.
Hamblett noted that the board has overruled recommendations made by CRMC biologists and engineers. CRMC board members can also simply not show up for votes that they don't like or are controversial.
“Right now, it is a messy politically charged agency,” Hamblett said.
Save The Bay wants CRMC to adopt the same structure followed by other state agencies, such as the Department of Environmental Management, that rely on independent hearing officers to rule on infractions and in-house experts to oversee compliance with applications.
Hamblett called for legislation next year that makes that change while clarifying the current hierarchy at CRMC.
“Think about a normal executive agency with clear lines of accountability and authority built into it,” he told the Senate Committee on the Environment and Agriculture.
Several members of the Senate committee are among the critics of the CRMC and its handling of public opposition during recent hearings for a proposed liquefaction facility on the Providence waterfront. Senators Dawn Euer, D-Newport, Josh Miller, D-Cranston, and Jeanine Calkin, D-Warwick, wanted to see members of high-pollution, low-income communities serving on the board. Others have called for having members with science or health degrees.
The bill, S2955, only says candidate with those qualifications may serve on a non-mandatory advisory board.
Kristen Ivy Moses, executive director of Rhode Island Interfaith Power & Light, was one of several speakers to object to the bill for not including a requirement that CRMC members represent the state's environmental justice communities. She wanted to know why these changes and others couldn't happen in this bill.
Committee chair Susan Sosnowski, D-Charlestown, said there wasn't enough time remaining in the legislative session, which typically ends in June, to amend the bill.
Miller said the Senate its better off passing a good bill instead of waiting for a perfect one.
“So, I think it is important to get something done if we can to change the makeup (of the CRMC) so it at least reflects ... separation of powers,” he said.
The committee passed the bill, 4-1, with Calkin abstaining and Euer opposing. The full Senate is expected to vote on the bill June 13. The House must approve the legislation for it to go to the governor's desk.