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Monday, June 10, 2024

Will time run out on bills for accessory dwelling units, open records reform and changing the CRMC?

Charlestown has a big stake in getting these three bills passed 

By Nancy Lavin, Rhode Island Current

Two of the three bills are sponsored by Charlestown's
Sen. Victoria Gu
Whoever coined the proverb “third time’s a charm,” probably didn’t have much direct experience in government.

Indeed, many of the top bills in play on Smith Hill are perennial problems, marked by years or even decades of failed attempts to solve complicated problems like the housing crunch, public records requirements and the state’s troubled coastal regulatory agency.

The 2024 legislative session features many such recurring hot topics, made even hotter as the clock ticks down till the end of the session, expected to be this week. 

Here’s a look at where three of the most pressing, unresolved issues stand as of June 7.

Accessory dwelling units 

While attempts to streamline the local zoning and permitting process for accessory dwelling units (ADUs) doesn’t have quite the storied history as other legislation in State House lore, it’s been the top priority for House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi for two years running. 

And while Shekarchi, a Warwick Democrat, has won overwhelming support from his House colleagues both years, the Senate has been reluctant to make moves, citing concern by municipal officials, including town planners. 

A compromise version intended to appease some of the harshest municipal critics was introduced by Sen. Victoria Gu, a Charlestown-Westerly Democrat, with an initial vetting on May 16. Yet Gu’s bill remains languishing in the Senate Committee on Housing and Municipal Government as of June 7.

“It’s under negotiation,” Gu said in an interview Friday. “It’s an active topic.”

Greg Pare, a spokesperson for Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, offered a perfunctory response on June 4: “not this week.”

Shekarchi has also indicated he’s unwilling to reconcile his initial proposal, which already sailed through the House, with Gu’s version, which would be required at some point before the bill is signed into law.

However, a separate bill, also sponsored by Gu, that matches Shekarchi’s exact proposal is scheduled to be voted out of the Senate Committee on Housing and Municipal Government Tuesday night.

Public records

EDITOR'S NOTE: Abuse of the law by the Charlestown Citizens Alliance (CCA) when they controlled town government makes this a high-stake issue for us. Often, the CCA had town pet town Administrator Mark Stankiewicz use the APRA to hide shady land deals.  - Will Collette

Advocates hoped the Interstate 195 Washington Bridge closure, and ensuing dossier of emails, text messages and videos released by public records requests, would shine a spotlight on the importance of strengthening the state’s Access to Public Records Act.

Yet the push to update the law that governs what state and local agencies have to hand over to interested members of the public — and for what cost — was derailed by the litany of objections raised by state agencies, including Gov. Dan McKee’s office.  

Also complicating the discussion is how the APRA legislation interacts with the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights (LEOBOR), specifically in conflict around whether policy body camera footage can be kept secret, or must be released when requested as a public record. Amendments to the LEOBOR bill approved by the Rhode Island General Assembly Thursday aimed to resolve that conflict, though concerns lingered among some open government groups.

John Marion, executive director for Common Cause Rhode Island, a key backer of the APRA legislation, said his hopes of passage were dwindling every day.

“So far, we haven’t been asked to throw anything overboard, which is probably one of the indicators that it is not going anywhere this year,” Marion said in an interview on June 4. “If they were going to pass it, they would have asked us what we would compromise on.”

Ever the optimist, Sen. Lou DiPalma, a Middletown Democrat and bill sponsor, maintained that the show wasn’t over, and that he was still discussing potential compromises with other lawmakers and legislative staff.

“It’s on a lifeline, yes, but it’s got a pulse,” DiPalma said in an interview on June 4.

CRMC reform

From allegations of backroom deals to a string of vacancies that have made it difficult to even hold meetings, the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council is awash in criticism. 

Companion bills by Sen. Victoria Gu and Rep. Terri Cortvriend, a Portsmouth Democrat, and backed by Attorney General Peter Neronha, tackle the most problematic piece, the 10-member, politically appointed council. The legislation abolishes the council and instead restructures the CRMC as an administrative agency similar to the Department of Environmental Management.

Hopes of passage came crashing down after the state budget office put a price tag on the change: $1.2 million to $2.9 million, according to a May 28 memo sent to lawmakers. The two-page memo explains that abolishing the council requires the agency to hire 15 more employees to take on the tasks previously overseen by the appointed council.

Shekarchi’s reaction? “Too expensive,” he told reporters on May 31, minutes before unveiling a revised $13.9 billion fiscal 2025 budget proposal that does not include any money for a CRMC overhaul.

But advocates for coastal reform insist the estimated price tag is inaccurate.

“The fiscal note is a red herring, intended to make sure the reform bill does not pass,” Topher Hamblett, executive director for Save the Bay, said in an interview on Thursday. 

The legislation specifically calls for one new employee, a staff attorney, the cost for which would be canceled out by eliminating the agency’s current practice of hiring an outside, private law firm to act as its legal counsel.

Hamblett remained hopeful that lawmakers would not be deterred by the eye-popping, and in his view overblown, sticker price and pass the legislation anyway.



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