September 25, 2013. Under the state’s Coastal Area Management Act (CAMA), the Coastal Resources Commission (CRC) has responsibility for developing standards needed to balance protection of highly productive coastal resources, public trust rights, and economic development. But the N.C. Coastal Federation’s Coastal Review Online reports that the CRC has been effectively out of commission since the beginning of August. The question is why.
This year, the General Assembly changed the makeup of the Coastal Resources Commission by reducing the number of commissioners from 15 to 13; revising the categories for appointment; and giving legislative leadership the power to appoint 4 of the 13 members. (See Sec. 14.24 of Senate Bill 402.) To make the changes effective more quickly, the bill caused the terms of all Coastal Resources Commission members serving on January 1, 2013 to expire on July 31, 2013 with four exceptions. Those four seats, specifically identified in the bill, have terms expiring on June 30, 2014. The bill required the Governor to appoint nine new CRC members by August 1, 2013 to replace the nine whose terms would end on July 31, 2013.
The problem is that new appointments have not been made and the CRC webpage now lists only four members — the four whose terms extend until June 30, 2014. Those four members alone participated in a special called meeting of the commission in August to make a decision related to litigation over an earlier CRC variance decision. The regular September meeting of the CRC scheduled for this week has been canceled.
The reason for the sudden loss of two-thirds of the commissioners is unclear. Both the N.C. Constitution and state law expressly say that state officials can and should serve until their successor has been appointed or elected.
N.C. Constitution, Article VI, Sec. 10: “In the absence of any contrary provision, all officers in this State, whether appointed or elected, shall hold their positions until other appointments are made or, if the offices are elective, until their successors are chosen and qualified.”
N.C.G.S. § 128-7: “All officers shall continue in their respective offices until their successors are elected or appointed, and duly qualified.”
The term “officers” covers all elected and appointed state officials, including members of boards and commissions. The provisions exist to guarantee that essential government functions continue even as terms of office end. N.C. judges have applied the provisions to find that decisions made by state officials beyond the end of their appointed term are valid and enforceable since those officials legitimately continue in office until a successor takes over.
The CRC’s responsibilities go beyond rule adoption. CAMA also gives the CRC power to grant variances from coastal development standards, issue declaratory rulings (interpreting how coastal development rules apply to a particular project), and approve local land use plans in the coastal counties. Those decisions are often time sensitive and important to developers as well as local governments, community groups and environmental organizations. Right now, the CRC cannot meet those obligations with a membership of four. Four commissioners may not even meet CRC quorum requirements unless the remaining nine members resigned or have been individually removed from office. (Neither seems to be the case.) The remaining four commissioners also cannot represent the broad range of interests and expertise needed to make balanced decisions about protection of the state’s coastal resources.