Suffolk closeup: Top stories in the county for 2017

KARL GROSSMAN PHOTO Wind farm development was a key story in 2017.
KARL GROSSMAN PHOTO Wind farm development was a key story in 2017.

As 2017 comes to an end, three major events stand out this pastyear in Suffolk County: the election results of last month, the indictment of long-time Suffolk District Attorney Tom Spota and the beginnings of offshore wind development.

It was an important election here for women and a breakthrough for African-Americans with Errol Toulon, Jr. elected as sheriff, becoming the first black to win a (non-judicial) countywide post.

In 1973, Judith Hope became the first woman to be elected a town supervisor in Suffolk by winning the election for East Hampton supervisor. A good number of women have followed Ms. Hope as supervisors in Suffolk, among them Barbara Keyser on Shelter Island; Henrietta Acampora in Brookhaven; Mardy DiPirro and Anna Throne-Holst in Southampton; Jean Cochran in Southold; and currently in office, Angie Carpenter in Islip town.

What a contrast to the centuries when the county’s governing body, the Suffolk County Board of Supervisors (replaced by a Suffolk Legislature in 1970) consisted only of men.
Election Day 2017 in Suffolk resulted in the victory of Laura Jens-Smith as town supervisor of Riverhead, the first woman elected supervisor of Riverhead since the town was founded 225 years ago. Elected with her to a Town Board seat was Catherine Kent.

In Southampton, Ann Welker was elected to the Southampton Board of Trustees, the first woman to become a Southampton Trustee since establishment of that panel 331 years ago. In Smithtown, Lynne Nowick was easily re-elected to the Town Board. And there were other female winners this year in Suffolk, which was a national trend.

The election of Mr. Toulon, former deputy corrections commissioner in New York City, is a milestone in a county with a long history of racism.

When I started as a Suffolk-based journalist in 1962, the leaders of the major parties would not think of running a woman for government offices other than town clerk and town tax receiver, seen as kind of secretarial roles for women back then.

As for running an African-American for a countywide office: forget about it!

The indictment of Suffolk DA Tom Spota in 2017 is a tragedy for him. Of the district attorneys in Suffolk over the past 50 years — and I’ve known every one of them — Mr. Spota stands out to be among the best. He was no-nonsense when it came to corruption, of which there has been an enormous amount in Suffolk through the years.

His indictment is rooted in a friendship with someone he, in hindsight, should not have trusted. But Mr. Spota got to know James Burke when Mr. Burke was a teenage witness in 1979 in a matter that Mr. Spota, as head of the DA’s Homicide Bureau, was prosecuting: the murder by suffocation of 13-year-old John Pius in Smithtown.

Then 14, young Burke testified at a series of trials in which classmates were charged with killing John Pius by shoving rocks down his throat.

That experience focused Mr. Burke on becoming a police officer. Police work was in his family — his father and grandfather were cops in New York City. Mr. Burke became a city cop, too, for a year, and then joined the Suffolk County Police Department and rose through the ranks.

Meanwhile, a friendship between him and Mr. Spota grew, and in 2002 after Mr. Spota was elected Suffolk DA, he named Mr. Burke to head of the DA’s squad of detectives. Mr. Burke held that post until becoming chief of department in 2011, its highest uniformed position.

In 2015, Mr. Burke was arrested on federal charges that, in a police station house in Hauppauge, he beat a man who was handcuffed and manacled, suspected of breaking into his police vehicle, and then he coerced fellow officers to cover up what he did. Mr. Burke pleaded guilty in 2016 and is now imprisoned.

Mr. Spota was charged in October by federal authorities, along with Christopher McPartland, the head of his political corruption unit, with obstruction of justice in connection with the cover-up of the assault by Mr. Burke. Mr. Spota then resigned as DA.

This was the first full year of operation for Deepwater Wind’s wind farm off Block Island east of Montauk Point. The five-turbine array, America’s first offshore wind farm, heralds what is likely to be the placement of many wind turbines off Long Island.

Indeed, the Long Island Power Authority (LIPA) in 2017 gave its go-ahead to Deepwater Wind to build what the Rhode Island-based company has named its South Fork Wind Farm in the Atlantic 30 miles southeast of East Hampton. Also in 2017, LIPA gave the O.K. to Statoil, a Norwegian-headquartered firm, to build a wind farm that Statoil has named Empire Wind south of Nassau County.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is bullish on offshore wind and sees it as a key element in the state’s plan to get half of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030.

As of the new year — that’s only a dozen years away!