Vacancies put pressure on CRMC as advocates call for more state funding

ADMINISTRATORS WITH the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council spoke to a panel of House lawmakers Wednesday about their fiscal 2024 budget request. Pictured from left to right are Laura Miguel, CRMC deputy director; Jeffrey Willis, CRMC executive director; and Louise Ford, CRMC chief resource officer. / RHODE ISLAND CURRENT PHOOT / NANCY LAVIN

Four hundred miles of coastline. Hundreds of development project permit applications. Four major renewable energy projects already under review with applications for several more offshore wind arrays looming on the horizon.

The demands on the state’s coastal regulatory agency are mounting, and its staff is shrinking. The Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council faces half a dozen vacancies, including several key positions, like a coastal geologist, which have been open for multiple years, according to Jeffrey Willis, CRMC executive director. Even operating at full capacity of 32 full-time employees isn’t enough.

“I’d fill those vacancies and take six more [positions],” Willis said, speaking to a panel of  House lawmakers on Wednesday.

Willis took a more urgent tone in his written budget request to the governor.

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“Services are suffering,” he wrote in his Sept. 30 budget memo, which was obtained by Rhode Island Current. “Any reductions in staff for the foreseeable future will be catastrophic to the agency mission and responsibilities.”

Gov. Daniel J. McKee’s proposed fiscal 2024 budget doesn’t take away agency staffing, but it doesn’t add any more jobs, either.

And the $5.9 million in agency funding included in his budget proposal marks a $1.6 million cut over the $8.5 million revised spending for fiscal 2023, according to a state budget presentation to lawmakers.

Willis isn’t the only one sounding the alarm. Environmental advocates also urged lawmakers to increase the agency’s funding in the upcoming budget year.

“A 32-person staff for the agency responsible for managing the coast in the Ocean State is an embarrassment,” said Topher Hamblett, advocacy director for Save the Bay. “We think CRMC has been neglected in terms of resources it needs. To flatline this agency’s budget is unacceptable.”

Further stoking flames of frustration is a still-unfilled position for a hearing officer. The legislature in its fiscal 2023 budget added $165,000 for the agency to hire a full-time lawyer to settle disputes in permit and enforcement cases, but the position still hasn’t been filled, or apparently, even advertised.

McKee’s fiscal 2024 budget would also cut the salary for the hearing officer to $79,000.

“It’s frustrating,” said Rep. Teresa Tanzi, a Narragansett Democrat. “The longer the CRMC goes without a good lawyer, the more they’re digging a hole to their demise.”

Willis deferred questions about the hearing officer position to McKee’s office, since the position is appointed by the governor.

Asked Thursday morning about why the job hasn’t been filled and why his budget recommends half the pay, McKee said, “I’ll have to get back to you on that.”

In a follow-up email, Olivia DaRocha, McKee spokesperson, said the governor’s office was “currently searching for qualified candidates to fill the role.”

The governor’s proposed budget allocation for the hearing officer salary reflects the pay for the job classification requested by CRMC, according Derek Gomes, a spokesman for the Rhode Island Department of Administration.

“CRMC and the governor’s office are considering alternative job classifications to ensure the description and pay grade are commensurate with the position’s duties,” Gomes wrote in an email Thursday.

The agency has come under intense scrutiny in recent years, with criticism directed at the 10-member, appointed council that gets the final say on major projects, often overriding the recommendations of its expert staff. Among them, an alleged “back room deal” struck in 2021 that allowed a Block Island marina to expand  despite protest from environmental groups and ongoing litigation. That agreement was rejected by the state Supreme Court in 2022. More recently, in December the council – against its staff recommendation – opted to let an offshore wind developer move ahead with its undersea cable burial plan without getting legislative approval.

Several bills introduced this session seek to remedy the agency’s problematic structure and lack of staffing. The most dramatic overhaul, introduced by Tanzi with a companion Senate bill by Sen. Victoria Gu, a Westerly Democrat, would replace the council with a “Department of Coastal Resources.” The new agency structure would mirror the model of the Department of Environmental Management in which an appointed director oversees a team of hired, expert staff. (There would be no politically appointed council).

Other bills aim to help the council with staffing while eliminating the conflicts of interest that have clouded past judgements, at least in public opinion. Legislation to add a full-time, in-house attorney and a full-time hearing officer were also recommended by a House study commission last year based on its review of  the CRMC.

Willis blamed retirements and lower pay than private sector competitors – and even other state agencies like the Rhode Island Department of Transportation – as reasons why the CRMC has struggled to fill open positions. But Hamblett also said the structure of the agency – in which the council routinely overturns staff recommendations – might dissuade potential candidates from applying.

“If you’re a person with integrity and you would like to work for the agency as a public service, the politics of the counsel might well dissuade you from applying for a job,” Hamblett said.

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