Save The Bay submits testimony on CRMC nominations

Save The Bay submits testimony on CRMC nominations

To: Senate Committee on Environment & Agriculture
From: Topher Hamblett, Director of Advocacy
Date: February 3, 2021
Re: Appointments to the Coastal Resources Management Council

Thank you, Chairwoman Euer and members of the committee, for this opportunity to testify on Governor Raimondo’s nominations for re-appointment to the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC). The importance of CRMC to the state’s environmental health and overall well- being cannot be overstated.

We respectfully urge this committee to consider Governor Raimondo’s nominees in the context of CRMC’s structure. It is a structure that undermines the integrity of CRMC’s regulatory program and often fails to protect natural resources the Council was established to protect.

The Council is a politically appointed body whose members are not required to have experience or expertise in coastal environmental matters. It acts as a collective body, with no one individual held to account for Council decisions, and no one person accountable to the Governor.

The Executive Director and professional agency staff review and determine hundreds of applications, and enforcement actions each year. Yet, contested cases are heard and decided by these political appointees , most of whom are unqualified but have the authority to overturn determinations made by agency staff with expertise.

The deficiencies in the structure of CRMC are exacerbated by the failure of Governors, over many years and through the present, to appoint hearing officers to determine contested cases, as required by law (§ 46-23-20). It is in that void that politically appointed Council members, who are not required to have expertise, are empowered to adjudicate cases.

Unlike other agencies, CRMC staff is not represented by an attorney at hearings, creating an unfair advantage for applicants and those that violate the coastal program.

The agency’s structure allows and invites these deficiencies. The General Assembly has yet to take steps to address them. As long as this defective structure is in place, it is imperative that the Governor nominate – and the Senate confirm – candidates that will serve all coastal communities with requisite experience and expertise. New community representatives, including representatives from environmental justice communities, should be appointed to the Council to ensure that the Council represents all Rhode Islanders.

Objection to Reappointment of Raymond Coia and Donald Gomez

We submit that members of the Council should have a background via education or work experience in coastal related issues or environmental law. In 2017, Governor Raimondo removed the only two members of the Council who represented environmental perspectives and publicly advocated for the environment.

The statute was structured to have municipal representatives serve for a three-year term, subject to reappointment. It was not intended to have appointments that extended for decades. Mr. Coia was initially appointed in 2003, and Mr. Gomez in 2007.

Further, both Mr. Coia and Mr. Gomez recently voted to approve the expansion of Champlin’s Marina. The 2003 application was repeatedly denied by CRMC, and those denials were upheld by the court as recently as February 2020. Without public input, CRMC reversed its earlier decision and granted a modified expansion through a so-called “decision” that does not contain findings of fact and conclusions of law. Members of the Council that supported such a process that circumvents public input should not be reappointed to the Council. There was extraordinary public interest and participation in the case.

Support for Reappointment of the Chairwoman, Jennifer Cervenka

This is only the second term for Chairwoman. Although we do not always agree on issues and outcomes, we submit that as an experienced environmental attorney, she effectively manages the Council. We work cooperatively with the Executive Director and the Chair in improving public access and making improvements to the regulations. The Chair and Executive Director are both responsive and CRMC openly and quickly shares public records.

Save The Bay Urges Senate Action on CRMC Structure

The Rhode Island coast is our state’s greatest asset. Given the pressing impacts of climate change and the importance of our coastal resources, Rhode Island should not be the one state that allows a group of 9 appointed persons, not required to have relevant experience and expertise, to decide issues that will affect our coastal resources for decades to come.

CRMC is an outlier, regionally and nationally, in its structure, in which a politically appointed council of volunteers, without legal training or expertise in coastal issues, adjudicate contested permitting and enforcement cases. The vast majority of coastal states, and all of the New England states, assign permitting and enforcement decisions to professional staff at executive branch agencies.

In 2018, as a result of Save The Bay’s challenge to the legality of the Governor’s nominations in court, this Committee passed a bill to strengthen the transparency and accountability of the appointments process. That bill, which Save The Bay supported, became law. The Committee also passed a resolution establishing a Special Legislative Commission to Study the Effect and Procedures for the Reorganization of the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Council. Save The Bay supported that resolution as well. To our knowledge, the Commission has not met.

We urge this Committee to appoint new qualified members of the Council, including those from environmental justice communities, and take up the work of the Commission to address the long-standing structural issues identified in our testimony. Rhode Island’s coastal environment and its coastal communities deserve nothing less.