By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
PROVIDENCE — One of the few environmental bills passed by the General Assembly in 2018 gives the governor greater authority to make appointments to the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC). The changes may seem minor, but the fix to the committee overseeing waterfront development and coastal regulations makes it the last state entity to abide by Rhode Island's separation-of-powers rules.
John Marion of Common Cause Rhode Island led the effort to pass the separation-of-powers amendments to the state constitution that were approved by voters in 2004. The rules prohibit members of the General Assembly from serving on and appointing fellow members to executive boards and commissions. Marion said the CRMC was a holdout because the General Assembly wanted to keep its authority to appoint members who supported an agenda that favors development.
Marion likes that the legislation (S2955 and H8319) gives the governor authority to appoint nine of 10 CRMC members — the director of the Department of Environmental Management (DEM) is a mandatory member — but he said a provision that requires some members to hold elected or appointed municipal offices violates the governor's constitutional right to be the sole executive to appoint members of state boards and commissions.
“The legislature is impeding on that gubernatorial power,” Marion said.
The bill reduces the number of members on the CRMC board from 16 to 10. Three of the members must represent coastal communities and six must be elected or appointed municipal officials.
Prior to the passage of the 2004 legislation, two members of the House and Senate were permitted to serve on the CRMC board. The speaker of the House appointed two members from the general public and two from a coastal community. The governor was limited to four appointments. After separation of powers were approved, the House and Senate stopped appointing members from the General Assembly, but appointment powers were never revised in CRMC’s enabling statute.
The business lobby preferred CRMC’s original board makeup and appointment system. The Rhode Island Business Coalition, whose members include six chamber of commerce groups and the Associated Builders and Contractors of Rhode Island, opposed the bill.
The new legislation “turns over the management of Rhode Island’s coastal resources almost entirely to local governments and local community members; the interests of the state are not represented at all,” according to a Rhode Island Business Coalition letter.
The bill was written at the request of the Gov. Gina Raimondo, after Save The Bay filed a complaint in state Superior Court seeking clarification on the appointment rules.
Save The Bay supported the bill because it mandates that the governor appoint all nine open seats and thereby keeps the three branches of government separate. But the environmental group prefers that CRMC fundamentally transform its regulatory process for reviewing permits and contested cases. Rather than having citizen political appointees adjudicate coastal development and violations, Save The Bay wants hearing officers and other CRMC staff experts to approve or deny permits and manage appeals, like other state coastal regulatory agencies.
“Perhaps, next session (the General Assembly) can look at a larger fix that makes CMRC a more normal administrative agency,” said Topher Hamblett, director of policy and advocacy for Save The Bay. “It’s too important of an agency to be structured the way it is now.”
The environmental advocacy group No LNG in PVD opposed the legislation because it wanted half of the appointees to represent environmental justice communities and have professional degrees in science and health. Half of the members should identify as persons of color and at least two members represent indigenous tribes. Board members should also be limited to two two-year terms, according to No LNG in PVD.
The bill creates three-year terms with no term limits.
“We must ensure that the legislation and the Senate create a CRMC that empowers the people to ensure clean air, water, and soil for all of Rhode Islanders as well as access to our waterfront,” according to a joint letter from No LNG in PVD and Rhode Island Chapter of the Sierra Club. “If we look at the world’s political landscape, we should be truly concerned about the growing injustice; we urge you to create a more just CRMC.”
The bill says that CRMC’s executive director may appoint an advisory committee with two members from the University of Rhode Island, but there is no request to appoint health or environmental justice experts.
The CRMC board didn't meet for six weeks until there was clarification on the reappointment of three members. The Senate bill was also postponed for a week after No LNG in PVD contested Raimondo’s reappointments.
The governor’s legal counsel eventually issued an opinion stating that the governor has the authority to make the reappointments.
The Senate approved the bill June 13. The House passed the bill, 63-4, on June 22. Representatives Aaron Regunberg, D-Providence, Robert Nardolillo, R-Coventry, Marcia Ranglin-Vassel, D-Providence, and Moira Walsh, D-Providence, voted against the bill.
Raimondo’s is expected to sign the bill. The changes take effect Jan. 1, 2019.