A Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council public hearing Tuesday night produced no decision regarding Revolution Wind’s plans. The council ended the meeting a little after 10 p.m. even though about a half dozen people were still waiting to speak. (Photo by Nancy Lavin/Rhode Island Current)
Katie Almeida jotted notes in the margins of a printout as she listened to attorneys and economists discuss the Revolution Wind project in a windowless room of the Rhode Island Department of Administration building on Tuesday night.
And she kept listening and writing, waiting four hours for the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council to open public comment so she could speak on behalf of The Town Dock, where she works as senior representative of government relations and sustainability.
The Narragansett seafood wholesale company is reliant upon the local fishing industry, which has argued against the massive wind farm project, fearing disruption to native species, and in turn, their livelihoods. The CRMC has a say in the project as it relates to state coastal regulations and can recommend ways to minimize fishing industry losses through compensation and other mitigation efforts.
But by 10 p.m., a few public comments in, Council Chairman Ray Coia announced the council would continue its hearing on May 9.
Which meant Almeida and the other half dozen people waiting to speak will have to come back in two weeks to say their piece.
“I’m frustrated,” she said in a later interview. “I sat there for four hours and didn’t get to comment.”
Coia opened the meeting by telling the crowd of three dozen people that the council “had the room until 9 o’clock tonight.”
After a short break around 8 p.m., Coia gave an update.
“We have discussed with Capitol Police and we do have the room for at least one more hour so we have till 10,” he said. “I don’t want you to rush and I don’t want the public to feel that they don’t have an opportunity to be heard.
He added, “Thank you to the Capitol Police.”
Room use policy allows late meetings
But police staffing isn’t the issue, according to Capitol Police Chief Joseph Little.
At least one officer staffs the state building 24/7, with two additional officers for security during night events. Little said the CRMC, which pays for police staffing for its bimonthly meetings, can pay for as many hours of police presence as it wants.
If an individual officer told the council he or she could not stay late, that would be a “disciplinary issue,” Little said.
I’m frustrated. I sat there for four hours and didn’t get to comment.
– Katie Almeida, senior representative of government relations and sustainability, The Town Dock in Narragansett
As for the room reservation, that’s also not the problem. Room reservations are made in advance, and can include requests for extended time, said Laura Hart, a DOA spokesman.
The state’s Judicial Nominating Commission, which holds night meetings in the same building, often runs late, said John Marion, executive director for Common Cause Rhode Island.
“I’ve never seen a judicial commission meeting end because they got kicked out of the DOA building,” Marion said.
When Coia announced plans to continue the meeting, he said he wanted to be considerate of the meeting stenographer, council staff and others in attendance. Anthony Desisto, the council’s attorney, asked the people still waiting to speak if they could come back at 5 p.m. in two weeks. But they were not given the option to stay later the same night.
“I would have absolutely stayed,” Almeida said. “Who knows what will happen on May 9, what if some people can’t come back. If we had the opportunity to stay later, we should have been given that opportunity.”
Questions about transparency
To Marion, the decision to postpone public comment – and lack of transparency about why – speaks to a bigger issue.
“There’s a broader problem in Rhode Island with public bodies not doing enough to accommodate public testimony,” Marion said.
Postponing a crucial decision such as the council’s approval of the massive offshore wind farm as it complies with state coastal regulations also risks losing a quorum, which has been the source of a string of canceled CRMC meetings this year already.
Meanwhile, the council’s lack of transparency has drawn mounting criticism, ignited by an alleged back room deal struck in 2021 to allow for expansion of Champlin’s Marina in Block Island that was later struck down by the Rhode Island Supreme Court.
“The CRMC has a decadeslong checkered record when it comes to the council,” Marion said. “The Champlin’s Marina decision is a road map for how public bodies shouldn’t behave.”
There’s a broader problem in Rhode Island with public bodies not doing enough to accommodate public testimony.
– John Marion, executive director, Common Cause Rhode Island
Asked for clarification about how room requirements and police staffing impacted the decision to end the meeting, Laura Dwyer, a CRMC spokesperson, provided an emailed response:
“Since the 1990s, the CRMC has booked the same meeting room for three hours, as that is generally the amount of time we need to hear applications. Occasionally we need to go later, and we always alert Capitol Police that we need to do so when at a meeting it becomes clear we need more time. Capitol Police have never had an issue with that. The Executive Director simply felt that for Tuesday’s meeting, it would not be fair to the process to go late into the night, as we had possibly another hour of public comment (about 10 folks raised their hands), followed by concluding remarks by the applicant, then significant deliberations by the Council. Considering all of that, it could have easily added a couple additional hours to the process. Again, it wasn’t seen as fair to the process.”
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