After 20 years in government, including over 12 years combined in both the Southampton and East Hampton towns, Michael Sendlenski is stepping down as East Hampton Town attorney. He reflected on his career and touched on his future plans in a recent interview.
In prosecuting those who violate a town’s code, the key for Sendlenski has always been compliance. “A town board, a planning board, spends so much time creating this town code. A two-volume set, eight inches thick. So much time and energy goes into making that, that getting compliance is a necessary part. Otherwise, it is all wasted,” he said.
Sendlenski was born in Southampton Hospital. On the wall in his office in East Hampton Town Hall hangs an antique Harvard pennant. It was a gift from Dr. James Johnson, who delivered him in 1973. The late Dr. Johnson was a Harvard grad, and Sendlenski would be the first baby he had ever delivered to go on to attend his alma mater. Hence the gift.
Growing up in Southampton, Sendlenski delivered furniture for Hildreth’s every summer from the time he was 12 until after his junior year at Harvard, when he decided to try something new and became an intern for a member of the Massachusetts State Legislature.
That backbencher in the state House of Representatives, Paul Casey of Winchester, hired Sendlenski after he graduated as an aide. That same year, 1996, the then-speaker of the house resigned in disgrace, and Casey became chairman of the Public Safety Board. At 23, Sendlenski was named Casey’s chief of staff. He spent about five years in that position, overseeing a staff that included three lawyers.
Life in the Massachusetts House was a continuing education course for Sendlenski. “You learn what real politics is, and you learn what real policy thought is,” Sendlenski said. “There is a lot of policy that goes through there. They tend to be very forward thinking.” The concerns, he discovered, were similar to those of the East End of Long Island.
Up To Code
Sendlenski discovered his love for law, and obtained his degree from Suffolk Law School in Boston. After a brief stint in a law firm in Riverhead, he became an assistant attorney for Southampton Town in 2006. He worked alongside another attorney, Elizabeth Vail, who had attended sixth grade with Sendlenski in Southampton. When Vail became the East Hampton Town attorney in 2013, Sendlenski followed, and wound up succeeding her when she departed to enter private practice.
Under Vail and Sendlenski, the town attorney’s office began working closer than it had been with both code enforcement and the police. A key moment was when David Betts was brought in as the town’s public safety director. “I worked with Dave Betts when I was in Southampton. I was very happy when he came here, because he’s played an important part in coordinating those things,” Sendlenski said.
“We have professionalized a lot of those things from where they were, in getting everyone trained properly. Before we got here, I don’t think code enforcement had done a search warrant in decades. We did do them and some of the things we found were truly troubling. Almost 20 people living in a basement. Almost 40 camp counselors living in a single house,” he recalled.
The latter case involved the Hampton Country Day Camp, owned by Jay Jacobs, Nassau County’s Democratic chairman, who was recently named leader of the New York State Democratic Committee by Governor Andrew Cuomo.
Both cases have been adjudicated, and both properties are now in full compliance with town code, Sendlenski said.
He also points to the town’s battle with Cyril’s, a once popular restaurant and bar on Montauk Highway on Napeague. “It was a public safety nightmare, a true tragedy waiting to happen,” he said of the site. People flocked to Cyril’s, often walking on the shoulder or crossing the highway, where the speed limit is 55, to get there.
The town took the restaurant to court, and got 45 misdemeanor convictions, and a stipulated settlement for the site going forward. A new owner is opening Morty’s Oyster Stand at the same location this year, with a set of rules for what can and cannot be done on the site now in place.
Sendlenski took the job with the town, after interviewing with then Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell, as well as with current Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc. In that interview, Sendlenski said, he quoted a line from Billy Joel’s song “The Downeaster ‘Alexa’”: “There ain’t no island left for islanders like me.”
His goal, he said, is to pass down an environmentally healthy, vibrant East End to his children, and his children’s children. And, the traditions, as well. “People who know how to use a clam rake. People who know how it is to catch a striped bass on the beach. Who know what it’s like to walk through a farm field,” he said. “That is what drives me.”
He was asked about a recent public hearing at which musicians and their followers showed up, en masse, at Town Hall to voice objections to a proposed amendment to the town code governing music in bars and restaurants. He was asked if he was disappointed that the law sparked so much opposition. The answer was an emphatic, “No.”
“You have people in East Hampton who want to be involved,” he said. “It is not disappointing at all. It is encouraging.”
His two children are a major factor in his decision to leave government service. Sendlenski said the East Hampton Town Board has done much recently to bring the pay levels for town attorneys into the same ballpark as other towns across the East End, but still has a ways to go. With his two children approaching college age, the future is now, he said.
“I’ve indulged my interest in working in government for a long time . . . I can take the sacrifice,” he said. “My kids shouldn’t have to. My parents wanted me to go to the best school I could. I owe the same thing to my children.”
On May 3, the day he steps down, Sendlenski said he is going to “take a breath,” then get to work, most likely in his own office. “I would like to start something for myself, and build from the ground up,” he said.