Monday, June 22, 2009

Battle Over Coastal Oversight Panel Leaves It Rudderless

By Peter B. Lord

Journal Environment Writer

PROVIDENCE — Save the Bay and Governor Carcieri say they hope the House of Representatives passes a Senate bill in the waning days of the session that would let the governor appoint more members to the shorthanded Coastal Resources Management Council. But the House is looking at a different bill — and that could cause delays, raising the possibility that there will be no help for the critical coastal agency this year.

Carcieri and the state’s largest environmental group support the bill the Senate passed unanimously in May. The bill largely leaves the coastal council as it is, but changes somewhat the size and makeup of the council — comprising political appointees — that votes on critical coastal permit applications.

The Senate has passed the bill several times, but it has repeatedly died in the House, where leaders insisted they have a constitutional right to appoint at least some council members.

The state Supreme Court responded to the House contentions with an opinion last December that came down strongly in favor of the governor’s right to make appointments, and therefore control the council, which wields vast power over coastal activities in Rhode Island. That decision prompted many to hope that the House would finally support the Senate bill.

But the House has not even scheduled a hearing on it.

Instead, the House has scheduled a hearing for Thursday on a new bill sponsored by Rep. Eileen Naughton, D-Warwick. Naughton, who has served on the coastal council and has a strong interest in ocean issues, drafted a bill that does away with the appointed board altogether and makes it another department of the state, similar to the Department of Environmental Management.

“I think having a council presents a clear problem, a conversion of powers,” says Naughton. “My bill has clear areas of power: permitting is an executive power.”

Common Cause has spoken out against the Senate bill, because it restricts the communities from which the governor could make appointments to the council. The organization’s executive director, John Marion said it will review Naughton’s bill Monday night, but it does appear to him to be in keeping with separation of powers and the Supreme Court opinion.

Marion offered a third option last week: why doesn’t the governor appoint some new council members now, while the Senate is still in session and has time to provide its advice and consent.

“We don’t even need legislation, but we need part of the legislature to act,” Marion said in an e-mail.

Save the Bay argues that Naughton’s bill has arrived too late and provided too little time for review. But Naughton says she had no opportunity to review the Senate bill.

Save the Bay director Jonathan Stone, in a message to House leaders, says the time to act is now: “CRMC is operating under questionable authority and at half strength nearly five years after passage of the separation of powers amendment and six months after the Supreme Court made it very clear that CRMC is subject to the amendment. Critical decisions are being postponed and meetings are being regularly canceled by CRMC.”

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