Personal Interest vs Public Interest

Mar 30, 2019 | City Council

April 4, 2019 update:  The text below was posted on March 30, 2019.  Based on recent mis-statements and accusations about this post, I would like to add a few clarifications, while leaving the original text intact.  

In the fifth full paragraph, where I described the connection between our criminal justice process and the group of applicants to the ICPOC, I mistakenly wrote “one of them a prosecutor” but it should have read “one of them a public defender.” 

The MLive article that I referenced provides additional details, which I assumed readers would have seen (or could easily find), including the fact that the incident happened in Novi.  It was not my intention to imply that this incident happened in Ann Arbor.  That MLive article can be found at the link below:

This Monday, April 1, will be City Council’s first meeting since we learned that one of our colleagues, CM Zach Ackerman, was arrested for drunk driving almost three months ago. He was arrested in the late afternoon of January 2nd, after colliding with another car. At the scene, he refused to take a breathalyzer test; at the police station, he recorded a blood alcohol level more than double the legal limit. According to news reports, he is suffering from “severe alcohol dependency.” He describes recent events as a health problem which he was trying to keep “private.”

I learned all of this for the first time on Wednesday, from an MLive article. Later, I read an email from CM Ackerman — sent to Council a few hours before the MLive story — telling us that the article was coming. That email offered no more information or reflection than what was included in the article.

I have done significant advocacy work around the issue of mental health, particularly its impact on families. I recognize these challenges as profoundly serious, every bit as worthy of compassion as physical illness. I do not believe that CM Ackerman or anyone else should be penalized for circumstances related to an addiction or mental health issue. Treatment is a positive thing. Anyone seeking help should feel supported, not attacked.

The story of CM Ackerman is about much more than a health issue.

Our elected officials are required to be transparent about potential conflicts of interest. There is a reason why one of our council members recuses himself whenever we vote on a contract for service from his employer. Our elected officials are required to be honest about who supports them and how. There is a reason why political candidates must submit campaign finance reports both before elections and between election cycles. Our whole political process is transparent by design, through published minutes and recorded meetings. There is a reason why we have discussions at the council table. Our debate at public meetings allows everyone to observe our thinking and motives, to understand exactly what priorities and ideas influenced our votes.

Since January 2nd, City Council has debated and discussed the issue of how to select a representative group of community members for an independent police oversight commission. CM Ackerman was one of four council members designated to play a special role in that process, choosing individuals among a group that included lawyers (one of them a prosecutor), community leaders, and others with relevant insights and connections to police and our justice system. Meanwhile, in private, CM Ackerman was negotiating with police and prosecutors, pleading guilty to a lesser charge than the crime he actually committed, and accepting a more lenient sentence for that much lesser charge. He has chosen not to reveal any of the people involved in helping him achieve this outcome. He claims now that his desire to keep it private was “not malicious.”

I do not have a problem with a member of council seeking treatment for addiction or other mental health concerns. I am not surprised by news that addictive behavior can lead to very poor judgement on a specific day. Our community is full of residents who are working hard to maintain heath and sobriety on a daily basis; they deserve our support and respect, even (or maybe especially) when they slip up. My concern: we have a member of city council who was comfortable — for a period of months — concealing serious conflicts of interest that were highly relevant to issues we were discussing.

The conversation we must have now is very different from the conversation we would have had in January. Almost three months have passed since CM Ackerman began missing city meetings without explanation. Almost three months have passed since we should have been informed. We only know what we know now because MLive was able to discover it. I thank Darcie Moran for her diligence in reporting.

On Thursday, I emailed my concerns to our city attorney, Stephen Postema. The body of my email is below. (Note: I have not yet received a substantive response.)

I have concerns about the almost-three-months long concealment of a serious and dangerous crime. I appreciate that any reasonable person would be highly motivated to keep this particular news “secret”, but I am bothered by the fact that these motives (while reasonable) actually make an elected official extremely vulnerable.

During the last three months, a member of council was trying to maintain “privacy” around a crime, actively negotiating a plea deal for that crime, while also conducting city business (to the extent he could attend to it). Those three activities should not be happening all at once, without some degree of transparency. I know how little was revealed when I pursued conversation on this topic (in response to direct questions, I was only told “outpatient treatment”… dialysis? physical therapy?  Allergy shots? None of these would implicate a crime). Mayor Taylor claims to MLive that he knew nothing before yesterday. 

I cannot fathom how stressful it must have been for anyone to function for three months hoping that this huge bomb wouldn’t drop. It must have been awful. However, it is also awful that for three months, council functioned – and the public observed our functioning – without any knowledge of these significant personal motives and interests. Someone was facing possible and/or variable jail time, financial penalties, community service requirements, and other consequences (obviously working to avoid them). I would argue that those motives and interests were every bit as significant as the motives and interests council regularly observes as reason for recusal (e.g. when we consider a contract with CM Smith’s employer, Wade Trim, CM Smith does not participate in voting). 

Moving forward re: resolution of this specific incident, I believe we have a right to know WHO was involved, WHAT was required, and specific details around HOW this criminal charge was settled, particularly and especially: how a charge was negotiated down so aggressively and successfully. These details are specifically what my colleague “declined” to reveal publicly to the media. It happens that there is considerable overlap in council work of the last three months and community members working in our criminal justice system. A certain irony is not lost on the public: a young white man seems to have privately enjoyed advantages in our justice system, while publicly acting with authority to theoretically correct that unfair advantage. This situation and all of its players should have been subject to scrutiny from the beginning.

I appreciate that the ordinance from 2017 doesn’t address my concerns, which is why I’m wondering what concerns it WAS meant to address. I have questions about how we might prevent the current situation from happening in the future, what protections already exist (if any). Can we amend the 2017 ordinance? I am interested in taking steps that would better anticipate circumstances like this. NO ONE on council should spend three months under this kind of pressure: highly motivated to hide the fact that they have committed a crime, highly motivated to hide the fact that they are navigating our criminal justice system, and highly motivated to hide the fact that they are subject to criminal penalties. No elected official should be that vulnerable.