House OKs Rep. Knight’s bill to ensure appointment of CRMC hearing officers
STATE HOUSE – The House of Representatives today approved legislation sponsored by Rep. Jason Knight to enable the Coastal Resources Management Council’s executive director to ensure the regulatory agency has the professional staff it needs to make sound determinations on coastal development proposals.
The legislation (2023-H 5779A), which now goes to the Senate, empowers CRMC’s executive director to hire a hearing officer for the agency, if the position is left vacant for 90 days or more.
By law, the agency is supposed to have two full-time attorneys, but the positions have never been filled. With the positions vacant, the CRMC staff writes a recommendation, and then the appointed council hears the case and can accept, modify or reject the staff’s recommendation, circumventing the process designed to give a full and impartial hearing to applicants.
That process has been the subject of significant criticism, particularly since the members of the council are not required to have any background or experience in coastal issues. Filling the positions was a recommendation of a special House committee that studied the organization of the CRMC last year.
The legislation would provide a more professional, transparent and trustworthy regulatory process for coastal development decisions, said Representative Knight (D-Dist. 67, Barrington, Warren).
“Our laws state that contested permits and enforcement cases are supposed to be heard by a hearing officer — an attorney who is well-versed in the laws and regulations pertaining to coastal development and protection. It is not surprising that many Rhode Islanders don’t have a lot of trust in CRMC when they’ve been circumventing that process for years,” said Representative Knight. “This is a bill to create accountability. It says that if the process isn’t followed as it is spelled out in law, the executive director is empowered and required to see that the positions get filled anyway. Those hearing officers are meant to ensure CRMC’s decisions are based on sound legal reading of our coastal regulations, not politics, and we need them to protect Rhode Island’s 400+ miles of coastline.”
The legislation, which now heads to the Senate, gives the governor 90 days from its enactment to make the appointments, after which it empowers CRMC’s executive director to do so. The same 90-day deadline would apply later if one of the positions becomes vacant. The bill eliminates the section of law enabling the council to handle the hearing officers’ responsibilities.
Having full-time hearing officers would also help CRMC make headway on its backlog of matters awaiting resolution, added Representative Knight.
The legislation is cosponsored by Rep. June S. Speakman (D-Dist. 68, Warren, Bristol) and Rep. Terri Cortvriend (D-Dist. 72, Portsmouth, Middletown).