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Friday, October 21, 2022

Gina Raimondo’s CRMC was designed to favor wealthy and connected interests

And it delivered

By Steve Ahlquist for UpRiseRI

The October 14 Rhode Island Supreme Court decision against the Champlin Marina expansion puts a period at the end of a long sentence begun in 2017 when then Governor Gina Raimondo decided to stack the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) with insiders and bad actors who favored fossil fuel companies over climate justice communities and the interests of wealthy resort owners over ecological devastation.

The CRMC is a state regulatory agency tasked with maintaining and regulating the use of Rhode Island’s 400+ miles of coastline. Agencies like the CRMC, said the Attorney General in a statement, “…have been given extraordinary powers by the General Assembly to make decisions that directly and significantly impact the people of this state. 

Under long-settled Rhode Island law, this grant of power is conditioned on several things, including a requirement that their quasi-judicial decision-making process be transparent and provide for public input, and that every agency decision be supported by specific findings of fact and conclusions of law that objectively justify the decision.”

Friday’s decision by the Rhode Island Supreme Court found that the CRMC illegally and behind closed doors reached a settlement with Champlin Marina, allowing the resort to potentially expand into the Great Salt Marsh on Block Island. This was an attempt to circumvent a public regulatory process conducted by the CRMC that in 2011 denied Champlin’s expansion, a decision that was “well supported by the evidence” according to the Court.

But this out of control, backroom dealing CRMC, headed by Raimondo appointee Jennifer Cervenka, was only doing what it was intended to do: Serve the interests of the wealthy and connected, all other concerns be damned.

This was evident back in July 2017 when Governor Raimondo made the unusual – even unprecedented – decision to radically alter the makeup of the CRMC six months earlier than she needed to. As reported by Tim Faulkner in ECO RI, quoting former CRMC Chair Anne Lingston, “changes on the council are typically announced closer to January, when the General Assembly begins its session.”

But little attention was paid to changeover, and a complacent and complicit State Senate rubber stamped the changes with no real “advice and consent” being provided.

Tony Affigne is a professor of political science at Providence College and was a CRMC member from 2011-2017. Along with along with Chair Livingston and council member Paul Beaudette, Affigne was replaced by Governor Raimondo in July.

The Governor’s action, said Affigne, left the CRMC “without any members with strong environmental commitments, and without its only member (me) who knows and understands the South Side community. I have many family members who still live in the area; previously worked as an adult education teacher and community organizer in both South Providence and Washington Park; and teach courses at Providence College (and previously at Brown) on city politics and environmental policy.”

Without CRMC members that cared about South Providence communities facing environmental injustice, or members that cared about the environment and climate change, National Grid was free to present their case to build a new liquefaction facility in the Port of Providence to a quasi-judicicial state agency that was now very friendly to fossil fuel interests and indifferent to the health and safety of the low-income BIPOC communities in the surrounding areas. [For detailed exposition and timeline about the CRMC membership changes, see here.]

Starting as early as February 2017, the CRMC was taking up National Grid’s proposed liquefaction facility, but after certain members raised objections to the plan, the discussions were put on hold in May. In July, Governor Raimondo made changes to the CRMC membership and by December the liquefaction facility was approved to the satisfaction of National Grid.

Never mind that it was later revealed that the CRMC had withheld information from the public about the nature and scope of the approval process. Never mind that community members called for the resignation of CRMC Chair Cervenka after she attempted to have a mother arrested during public testimony because she called the CRMC members cowards. Never mind that Cervenka had obvious conflicts of interest given that she used to work for the Northern Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce and her former boss was one of the few people to testify in favor of National Grid’s project.

When she finally answered a question from a journalist about these issues, Governor Raimondo played innocent.

Ignoring the obvious problems with the CRMC, the State Senate reapproved Cervenka and other CRMC members twice, despite residents who live near the Port twice presenting evidence that she was unfit and possibly corrupt. [See herehere, and here.] Uprise RI prepared a short video to demonstrate the lies told by Chair Cervenka and Councilmember Raymond Coia to the Senate Environmental Committee in 2021, to no avail.

During the Senate Committee hearing, held remotely due to Covid, several people called in to complain about the CRMC’s process in approving the Champlin Marina expansion on Block Island.

Suddenly, things changed.

When the CRMC screwed over the mostly low-income BIPOC community around the Port of Providence, few people noticed or cared. When the CRMC attempted to screw over the mostly white, upper middle class and rich residents of Block Island, it became front page news and the Attorney General became involved.

Less than two weeks after Cervenka’s second reappointment, the Office of the Attorney General decided to intervene in the Champlin Marina expansion case.

And this week, the case resolved with justice for the residents of Block Island.

But there was no justice for the residents of Providence, only disrespect, bullying, lies, continued environmental racism and worsening health outcomes.

Gina Raimondo is now Secretary of Commerce under President Biden.