ANN ARBOR, MI – An Ann Arbor councilman serving a year of probation for drunken driving says he’s not resigning, despite one of his colleagues arguing he should step down for hiding his arrest.
Zachary Ackerman, D-3rd Ward, was sentenced Feb. 20 for driving under the influence in Novi. Police said his blood-alcohol level was measured at more than twice the legal limit after he rear-ended another vehicle Jan. 2.
“Fortunately, we were in start-stop traffic at low speeds and no one was hurt,” Ackerman said at a council meeting this month. “Despite no injury, let me be very clear, drunk driving is a serious and dangerous issue. It was completely irresponsible of me to get behind the wheel that day.”
Ackerman chose not to publicly disclose his arrest until contacted by The Ann Arbor News/MLive about it in March, calling it a private health matter for which he has sought treatment.
He has since publicly apologized and said he’s been diagnosed with severe alcohol dependency and is in recovery.
But some of his City Council colleagues aren’t letting him off the hook easily and have continued to criticize and question his actions.
Some council members say they’re troubled Ackerman hid from them and the public for months the fact that he committed a crime and was going through the criminal justice system in Oakland County, all while he played a lead role in helping choose which residents get to serve on Ann Arbor’s new police oversight commission.
Ackerman served on a four-person nominating committee that put forward 11 names for council consideration in March.
Council Member Elizabeth Nelson, D-4th Ward, recently shared her concerns about that in a 1,345-word blog post, accusing Ackerman of “concealing serious conflicts of interest.”
“I cannot fathom how stressful it must have been for anyone to function for three months hoping that this huge bomb wouldn’t drop,” said Nelson, who thinks Ackerman should resign.
In her blog post, Nelson argued Ackerman played a “special role” in the commission appointment process as people with “connections to police and the justice system” sought spots.
Nelson, who was once reported to police for sending fake city notices to her neighbors, falsely stated in her blog post that a prosecutor was among those up for appointment.
“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,” she wrote. “He has chosen not to reveal any of the people involved in helping him achieve this outcome.”
Nelson’s original post did not mention Ackerman’s criminal case played out in a different community.
She has since updated it to note the case took place in Novi and that she was mistaken in her remark about a prosecutor. Rather, it was a public defender who was appointed to the commission.
Ackerman offered a public rebuttal to Nelson at a recent council meeting, arguing there was no conspiracy with regard to the police oversight commission appointments.
“I was arrested in and prosecuted by the city of Novi. It is unlikely that the Novi city attorney is aware of or takes issue with Ann Arbor’s police oversight commission,” he said. “As a first offender, my entire experience in court felt fairly transactional.”
Contrary to how Ackerman interpreted her blog post, Nelson maintains she never meant to imply that anyone from either Ann Arbor or Novi city government put any pressure on Ackerman to influence the commission appointments.
Nelson said she’s concerned Ackerman concealed a crime, conviction and sentencing while doing council work related to law enforcement.
While he wasn’t legally required to reveal anything, it would have been the right thing to do, she said, calling it ironic that “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.”
Ackerman was originally charged under the state’s “super drunk” law, but later pleaded to a lesser misdemeanor charge.
“I considered this a private part of my life because these events were a wakeup call,” he said.
Ackerman said his drinking became dangerous last November, but it wasn’t until Jan. 2 that he realized it.
“Immediately after my arrest and on my own accord, I sought resources to better understand and address my own issue,” he said.
“The University of Michigan assessed and diagnosed me and ultimately referred me to outpatient treatment at St. Joe’s. Through the months of January and February, I benefited from the terrific work of mental health professionals and support groups.”
He called it unfortunate to see the disconnect between Nelson’s reaction and how other community members have responded.
“I have been overwhelmed by the number of phone calls, emails, text messages, and even words on the street from people wishing me well and encouraging me to keep serving,” Ackerman said.
Some council members have asked whether state law requires the governor to remove Ackerman from office.
It states the governor “shall remove” any elected city official when there’s evidence they have been guilty of “habitual drunkenness” or “convicted of being drunk.”
Council Member Jack Eaton, D-4th Ward, recently sent the city attorney an email to inquire whether that applies.
If the governor is to remove every alcoholic legislator in the state, Ackerman said, “I hope she will not start with the ones who are honest, the ones in recovery.”
“If any of you at this table sincerely believe my actions are grounds for dismissal, please make that conversation about me, not about addiction or its treatment,” he told his colleagues. “A health condition is never grounds for being fired.”
City Attorney Stephen Postema declined to comment on the implications of the state law or Nelson’s conflict-of-interest claims.
Council Member Ali Ramlawi, D-5th Ward, suggested during this week’s council meeting that Ackerman benefited from “socioeconomic privilege” in getting a reduced sentence.
Ramlawi did not call for Ackerman’s resignation.
“I think it’s up to him,” Ramlawi said, adding 3rd Ward voters also can decide whether he’s fit for the job.
Ackerman was first elected in 2015 while still a University of Michigan student. He’s up for reelection next year.
Council Member Kathy Griswold, D-2nd Ward, agreed that Ackerman’s position on the council is a matter for voters to decide.
“I believe that Zach is extremely vulnerable right now and I think he should take care of himself and we should all be supportive of him, but I can’t condone drunk driving,” Griswold said.
Council Member Jeff Hayner, D-1st Ward, wore a unicorn pin at a recent council meeting, explaining that it was a tribute to his wife’s parents, who were killed by a drunk driver in 2008.
“She was deprived of her family. My children were deprived of their grandparents,” Hayner said.
Hayner said he had an inkling something was up when Ackerman started missing meetings, and he thinks the situation should have been fully explained.
Crimes committed by public servants should require timely reporting to the public, Hayner said. Council members are now talking about instituting such a policy.
“None of this is going to do anything to reduce the pain felt by those of us affected by drunk driving,” Hayner said.
Ackerman said he takes the issue incredibly seriously and he hopes to stay sober for decades to come.
“I’d like to thank the Ann Arbor recovery community for your support and assistance as I continue to come to grips with this. I could not be where I am right now without your help,” he said, drawing applause from residents in the crowd at the council’s April 1 meeting.
To the residents of the 3rd Ward, he said, “It’s the greatest honor of my life to represent you and I’m excited to continue doing so.” https://www.mlive.com/news/ann-arbor/2019/04/ann-arbor-councilman-faces-criticism-for-hiding-drunken-driving-arrest.html