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January 15, 2014

Sending A New Message, But With What Messenger?


By Kitty Merrill

They have the power to enforce the East Hampton Town Code, but officials in an array of departments appear to operate with tunnel vision. Rather than write a summons for violations they see when called to a site for other matters, they might make a referral to the ordinance enforcement department or, worse, ignore the situation.

Supervisor Larry Cantwell wants to change that. Last Friday he told The Independent about a plan to ensure coordination among the police, building, fire marshal, and ordinance enforcement departments.

"We're trying to send a new message," he said. "We need to enforce our code."

Cantwell wants to see staff in each of the departments "focusing their attention on the town code as a group."

During the campaign last fall, it was clear to Cantwell that voters wanted more aggressive enforcement of ordinances related to overcrowded single family houses and bars and restaurants. "We need more of our overall enforcement resources focused on that," he said.

There's been a repeated call for more staff in the Ordinance Enforcement Department, but with budget constraints an obstacle, Cantwell said, "Let's pool our resources and talent and pull them in through a coordinated effort." There could be "a lot of eyes and ears," focused on quality of life issues, he believes.

Assistant Town Attorney Pat Gunn was appointed Public Safety Administrator by former supervisor Bill Wilkinson in 2010. His duties included offering legal and investigative expertise to code enforcers. He's leaving to enter private practice this week and town hall denizens have been abuzz -- not too happily – about his potential successor. During the January 2 organizational meeting Senior Harbormaster Ed Michels was given an additional title, "Director of Public Safety."

Cantwell said Friday that he envisioned Michels working with newly appointed assistant town attorney Michael Sendlenski. Sendlenski would provide legal and technical oversight while Michels would be in charge of coordinating the different agencies and pulling together police, ordinance enforcement, the building department, and fire marshal's office.

Asked why he'd chosen Michels, Cantwell pointed to his Peace Officer status, as well as "excellent organizational skills" and experience as a leader.

The supervisor appeared unaware that Michels was subjected to a de facto demotion in 2010, predominantly due to a lack of leadership skills. In fact, his department, the marine patrol, was the focus of a 2009 investigation by The Independent that prompted the placement of the marine patrol, once an autonomous unit, under the supervision of town police.

Throughout the investigation, Indy surveilled marine patrol staff over the course of several winter weeks. Charged with patrolling local beaches, almost none of the officers we followed actually went to a beach. Instead they drove around, with trips from their Springs home base to the Sag Harbor 7-Eleven for coffee a preferred pastime. In another case, Indy clocked a marine patrol unit, which Michels insisted his staff take home so they could be ready to deploy in the event of an emergency, sitting in a residential driveway, covered in snow, for days on end.

Three months in to his first term, Wilkinson put an end to that. Placing Michels under the supervision of town police, he required officers to turn their vehicles in at the end of every day, tracked tickets they wrote, and banned the concept of "freelance" driving around in favor of assigning specific sectors to officers on duty.

The demotion and negative attention are just a portion of the bounty of baggage Michels brings to the table. An officer under his supervision in 2002 failed to take mitigating action when he responded to a complaint about a dangerous dog on the beach in Amagansett. Days later, the dog attacked a toddler and her grandmother, mauling them both.

Michels was taken to task by members of a local fishing family, after he declined to set out on a search for a missing bayman one night in 2005. The man was reported missing just after midnight and marine patrol officers told the family they'd wait till first light and let the Coast Guard handle in the interim. The bayman was eventually located at 4 AM and returned safely to shore.

During the 90s, the feud between Michels and one time Democratic Committee chair Bill Taylor was the stuff of water cooler talk at town hall. The pair had dueling titles and Taylor was eventually transferred to the planning department.

Over the years, Michels has been a frequent recipient of criticism from locals, for the size of his part time and full time staff, which once topped two dozen, and for the array of vessels, tagged Pat's Navy after his rabbi, former Councilwoman Pat Mansir, that were tied up at headquarters and said some, "never left the dock."

The new title approved earlier this month doesn't include an increase to Michels' nearly $91,000 salary. However, given past practice, it's likely he'd eventually ask for more money, more men, and more equipment.

Apprised of the history surrounding Michels, on Friday Cantwell was quick to say the reorganization is a "work in progress." He suggested Michels may not be the one to take the helm after all. ATA Sendlenski will "play a principal role," he added on Monday. "Ed's role is undecided."

kmerrill@indyeastend.com

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