Legislation to let CRMC director hire hearing officer clears House committee

Bill comes amid frustration over delays from governor’s office

By: - May 18, 2023 8:19 pm

The R.I. House Committee on State Government and Elections unanimously passed a bill letting the director of the state’s coastal agency hire a hearing officer if Gov. Dan McKee fails to do so within 90 days. (Screenshot)

If Gov. Dan McKee keeps dragging his feet on hiring an attorney to settle coastal permit and enforcement cases, then let someone else do it.

That was the premise behind legislation put forth on behalf of Save the Bay and approved by the House Committee on State Government and Elections Thursday. The committee’s unanimous vote, which sends the bill to the full chamber for a floor vote, came swiftly without discussion.

The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Jason Knight, a Barrington Democrat, authorizes the executive director of the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council to hire a hearing officer if McKee fails to appoint one within 90 days of the bill’s passage. 

The proposal comes amid mounting frustration over the governor’s failure to hire – or even advertise – the job despite it being funded at a $165,000 salary in the state’s fiscal 2023 budget.

“This is an accountability bill,” Topher Hamblett, advocacy director for Save the Bay, said in an interview on Wednesday. “It’s unfortunate that Representative Knight felt compelled to introduce legislation to get this addressed.”

Olivia DaRocha, a spokesperson for McKee’s office, said in an emailed statement Thursday that the governor and his team “are currently searching for qualified candidates to fill this role.”

She did not respond to follow-up questions about whether the job opening has been formally advertised, or what stance his office has on Knight’s bill. McKee’s fiscal 2024 budget also includes money for the position, but at a significant salary cut, down to $79,000.

This is an accountability bill.

– Topher Hamblett, advocacy director for Save the Bay

Advocates say hiring a full-time lawyer to settle disputes in permit and enforcement cases is critical to helping the understaffed coastal agency tackle its mounting workload. 

“Having a hearing officer is a crucial part of an administrative agency like this,” Knight said in an interview on May 16. “It makes all the sense in the world to give the executive the authority to hire one.”

The CRMC did not respond to multiple inquiries for comment about the bill, though Jeffrey Willis, its executive director, has lamented over the backlog created by staffing shortages and growing responsibilities in offshore wind projects, aquaculture and other coastal development.

And that’s just the start of the many problems plaguing the troubled coastal agency, which has faced harsh scrutiny over the composition of and decisions made by its politically appointed council. A bevy of bills under consideration by lawmakers seeks to reform the embattled agency, the most sweeping of which– and most widely supported in written and oral public testimony – would do away with the council altogether, reshaping the agency as an administrative department headed by a director. 

Knight’s bill marks the first CRMC-related legislation to advance out of committee, though there is no Senate companion bill as of Thursday.

Hamblett wasn’t deterred. He said Save the Bay had spoken with several lawmakers, including House and Senate leadership, who were “aware” of the governor’s failure to fill the position.

“It’s significant that they put money into the budget for this last year,” Hamblett said. “That certainly says something.”


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Nancy Lavin
Nancy Lavin

Nancy Lavin is senior reporter covering state politics, energy and environmental issues for the Rhode Island Current.