Larry Cantwell: The Art of the Even Keel

East Hampton Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell at Town Hall last week. Mr. Cantwell first won elected office as bay constable in 1975. David E. Rattray

“There’s certainly nostalgia and reminiscences . . . a certain amount of sadness, and a certain amount of euphoria,” said Larry Cantwell, sitting in his office at Town Hall on one of his final days as East Hampton Town supervisor. Mr. Cantwell’s successor, Peter Van Scoyoc, will be sworn in on Tuesday.

“For me, it’s not just leaving the supervisor’s office; it’s, really, leaving 42 years of public service. I’m just looking forward to making my own schedule for a while,” Mr. Cantwell said, reflecting on the upcoming transition.

He said he had been approached about several possible future endeavors, including a run for Congress, “but for the moment I want a break. I want to start out with zero . . . my own interests, and family . . . to travel, to get the basement cleaned out and organized, fish, play golf, go to more grandchildren’s baseball games.”

Although he and his wife, Anne, a retired bookkeeper, will travel to visit friends and family in Florida this winter, he said, “I’m looking forward to just being here in East Hampton.”

Mr. Cantwell, the son of an Amagansett commercial fisherman, became the town’s youngest elected official at age 25 when he became East Hampton’s bay constable in 1975. He went on to serve as a town councilman from 1976 to  ’82, and then as the East Hampton Village administrator through 2013, when he won in his first run for town supervisor. 

He became involved in civics in college in the late ’60s and early ’70s, when “the world was upside-down  and  the country was being torn apart” over civil rights, Vietnam, and the assassinations of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. East Hampton “was just being discovered” by those who came to rent share houses and such, and though “the media hadn’t even created the word ‘Hamptons,’ I actually felt East Hampton was being overrun,”  Mr. Cantwell said. 

At his final town board meeting last Thursday, after receiving proclamations from the board and from the East Hampton Food Pantry, and on the verge of choking up, Mr. Cantwell spoke of how “the people of this community” launched him on his lifelong career. “Over these many years,” he said, “you, the people who live in this community, have given me your encouragement and your support. You’ve given me more than I could ever return . . . your respect, even when disagreeing with me. And a public official cannot ask for more than that.”

During the discussion in his office, Mr. Cantwell again pointed to the civility that he feels marked his time in office. “When people can walk away and shake hands,” he said, “that’s good government.”

The board, he feels, was successful during his administration in “representing the community and doing the things the community wanted us to do.”

“I have a lot of respect for the four other board members I had the pleasure to work with,” said Mr. Cantwell. “We had a really good level of cooperation, and we tried to work together as a team.” 

“We disagreed more than people realized,” he said, but “truthfully respected each other’s opinion.” Key, he said, is communication, and “not letting egos get in the way.” 

The supervisor, he said, “has got to be willing to let a board member take the lead on an issue . . . got to be willing to defer. You’ve got to recognize you’re one-fifth of the board.”

“It’s about ‘Can we accomplish a goal?’  The advantage I had in becoming supervisor — I brought 38 years of experience to the position.”

There were, of course, some difficult moments. “It’s the way it is in a small town,”  Mr. Cantwell said. Decisions have to be made, and some of them “are gut-wrenching. You struggle to find what the right choice is.” 

“We held some of the largest public hearings in the history of the town,” Mr. Cantwell said, including a heavily attended one on the East Hampton Airport and its traffic,  a matter that has long been contentious,  as well as several on the unpopular U.S. Army Corps of Engineers  downtown Montauk beach project. 

“I think the fact that we established a tone in Town Hall . . . the community gave that back to us,” said the outgoing supervisor, whose administration was preceded by that of former supervisor Bill Wilkinson, whose years in office are widely remembered as volatile and whose board was criticized for incivility. 

There was success on the financial front, as well, Mr. Cantwell said. Under his leadership, the town achieved its highest-yet credit rating, an A.A.A. from Moody’s Investors Service, by reducing its overall indebtedness and increasing surplus margins. “The balance sheet is in pretty good shape,” Mr. Cantwell said. 

And, he said, “I think we took on the issue of water quality as a priority.” 

During his tenure, the board adopted a comprehensive wastewater-management plan, and voters approved spending up to 20 percent of community preservation fund money on clean-water projects. New standards were adopted requiring the use of low-nitrogen-emissions septic systems, as well, and a rebate program established to help property owners pay to put in the more environmentally friendly systems. “I feel good that we’ve led on that issue,” Mr. Cantwell said. 

In addition, he said, “We’ve taken the issue of climate change seriously, because we know it’s affecting our community.” A coastal resiliency plan is in the works.

Tied to the environmental future is the town’s pledge to use only renewable energy in the future, and Mr. Cantwell pointed to the board’s support of offshore wind turbines to achieve that goal. “While there’s a lot more to do, I know we’ve led on that issue.” 

In addition, he said, “I’m proud of our aggressive purchase of open space. The town’s efforts to preserve open space had ground to a halt, almost, when I first became supervisor.” 

Acquisition of parcels surrounding various water bodies was a priority, “to stop new development from occurring and protect the environment,” he said, “but also to provide access for the public.”

“I think we dealt with some challenges, too,” Mr. Cantwell said.

“The behavior and disregard for the law during the summers in Montauk —  I think we inherited a laissez-faire approach . . . that had led to disrespect for the law and community. It took some time to rein that back in.” A combination of increased enforcement and some legislative efforts was successful, he said, in calming an out-of-control party scene.

When asked what areas were less than successful, or were still works in progress, he had a ready answer: “I’m disappointed we didn’t make more progress in affordable housing,” the supervisor said. 

While housing projects often take years to come to fruition, and the town broke ground this year on a 12-unit manor-house project on Accabonac Road in East Hampton, “it requires more attention, more focus on that as an issue,” said Mr. Cantwell. “I just think the town needs to be more aggressive and more focused. You’ve got to just push the issue.” 

The outgoing supervisor said he believes Mr. Van Scoyoc, a fellow Democrat, will be a good fit for the job. “Peter is thoughtful, and has the kind of common sense you need to have. . . . You have to know there are going to be hard choices to make,” but also not let that “distract you from the good you want to do.” 

His advice for the new supervisor? Remain “true to what you believe in, and always understand the sense of the community. If you can represent the sense of the community, then you’re going to be in the right spot,” Mr. Cantwell said. 

He said that he has a feeling  of “gratitude that the people of this community started me on a career when I was 25 years old, and supported me all along.”

“When you add it all up, it’s been 42 years. And I’ve seen a lot of change,” he said. “Without question,” he said, “I would not trade my last 42 years as a public official in this town for any [other] career.”

“I’m leaving office overwhelmed with gratitude. I love this community as much as I ever have.”