A Mesa City Council member’s DUI arrest may provoke a dramatic meeting later this week amid suggestions that his colleagues may sanction, suspend or even remove him from office.
The May 7 arrest of Ryan Winkle provoked a series of public statements over the weekend that point to possible action by Council at its study session at 7:30 a.m. Thursday, May 18.
Mesa Mayor John Giles triggered the unusual reaction over the weekend when he released a public statement on Friday stating that Winkle “made a serious mistake that comes with serious consequences.”
“I like Ryan. He ran a great, grassroots campaign and works hard for his constituents,” Giles said. “My hope is that he carefully considers what is best for himself, his family and the community.”
Giles then said Ryan’s arrest would be discussed at the May 18 meeting because of “concerns about Ryan's ability to carry out his responsibilities as a member of the City Council with these charges pending.”
On Saturday, Councilman Kevin Thompson joined the growing fray, posting on his Facebook page a recap of Winkle’s arrest and telling his constituents “I know a lot of you have sent emails to the mayor and the council seeking our colleague’s resignation.”
Stating, “All elected officials should be held to a higher standard. Period,” Thompson commended police but added, “I don’t expect my colleague to receive any special treatment that any other individual in the same situation would receive, but we must allow the judicial system to work and allow due process to be served.”
Then, former Councilman Dennis Kavanaugh, who was succeeded by Winkle last year as the result of term limits, chimed in on Sunday with a warning to his former colleagues not to overreact to the arrest.
“Our ethics code offers the city council a range of options it can consider when a member faces misconduct charges. Our ethics code permits the council to vote for censure, reprimand, suspension, monetary penalties as well as removal from office for specified reasons including conduct demonstrating a lack of fitness for office.”
Advocating a “progressive discipline approach,” Kavanaugh wrote:
“A councilmember's boss is not the mayor or the other members of the city council. The voters of District 3 are the ones who placed Ryan on the city council. They have the ability to recall the district council member after the first six months the official is in office and they have the ability to reject that official in the next election, should that member choose to run for re-election.”
“They should be the best judge of whether to remove the councilmember they elected. Remember, none of the other members of the current council, including the mayor, could cast a vote for or against Ryan in the 2016 election.”
Winkle seemed like a man on top of the world when he was sworn into office only a few months ago as a Mesa City Council member, his wife at his side with his newborn baby, his family and friends giving him a rousing ovation at the Mesa Arts Center.
But after his arrest, Winkle found himself under a cloud, making the wrong kind of headlines, with his political future seemingly in doubt.
The good news, according to three political consultants interviewed independently, is that the cloud can blow over for Winkle if he deals with this self-imposed crisis in the right way, owning up to a mistake, taking concrete steps to address a potential problem in his life and spending the rest of his term proving his worth to Mesa.
Most of all, Winkle cannot stumble in a similar manner again, especially not in a conservative, family-oriented city like Mesa. And especially not when voters already forgave him for a past indiscretion in 2008, when he was convicted in Scottsdale of an extreme DUI.
“He stumbled out of the block, but he still has the majority of his term left,” said Mike Noble, a political consultant. “This should be a wake-up call.”
Noble used a baseball analogy for Winkle’s predicament, saying, “I can get away with two strikes, but three strikes, you’re out.”
Bill Scheel, a Phoenix political consultant who usually works on progressive causes, agreed with Noble and fellow political consultant Jason Rose that Winkle has an opportunity to redeem himself.
“He’s got 3½ years to prove himself. It will be under additional scrutiny. He needs to be on his best behavior,” said Scheel, of Javelina, a public relations firm.
“I think there is a lot less tolerance for these things than years ago. I think it’s something Ryan can recover from,” Scheel said. “If there is any sense there is a pattern, voters are not going to be very forgiving.”
Scheel added that he does not consider two DUIs eight years apart a pattern.
Rose, who usually works on conservative causes, said politicians have rebounded from far worse mistakes. He cited the case of David Vitter, a former Louisiana U.S. senator who was caught up in prostitution scandal but won re-election before he eventually was defeated.
“Unquestionably, a career can be redeemed,” Rose said. “DUIs are not good, but everyone knows someone or a dozen people who have gotten them.”
Rose and Noble agreed that Winkle should apologize and show real contrition, admitting a mistake and announcing steps he is taking to correct a problem.
Rose said voters “don’t want to see arrogance from someone trying to abuse their position.”
Noble concurred, saying, “The sooner he addresses it, owns it and makes some corrections, the better off he’s going to be.”
The arrest will probably be enough for someone to challenge Winkle when his term expires and will likely be used against Winkle during campaigning, Noble said.
Winkle, 38, was cited on suspicion of driving under the influence of alcohol, a misdemeanor, after a Tempe police officer noticed frightened pedestrians running out of his way about 1 a.m. at Baseline and Kyrene roads.
The officer reported he made a U-turn and followed the gray 2006 BMW that Winkle was driving. The officer saw the BMW swerving in the curb lane, nearly hitting the curb, and pulled Winkle over.
Winkle’s wife, Ericka Varela, was the only passenger and the car was registered in her name.
Winkle maintained his composure throughout the incident, repeatedly denying guilt but treating the police cordially. He never told officers he was a Mesa council member, but he didn’t have to, because Valera did so several times.
“I’m sorry it turned out like this. I made a bad decision. I appreciate you being here,” Winkle told a Tempe traffic officer, according to a body camera video released by Tempe police.
But Valera, who attended the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Black and White Ball with her husband that night, told officers that her husband was the only council member supporting the Mesa police and fire unions and questioned why they were arresting him.
“Is this the best you guys can do, to arrest a council member who is supporting police and fire?” Valera said. “I think this is BS. I understand he shouldn’t be drinking and driving.”
But a Tempe officer calmly responded, “We are doing our job,” according to the video.
The patrol officer called in a traffic officer, who administered field sobriety tests to Winkle. Eric Jensen, the traffic officer, noted in his report a “poor performance” by Winkle on the tests. The council member refused a standard breath test.
During questioning by police, Winkle denied twice that he had been drinking, but officers reported that he exhibited the classic symptoms of intoxication: a strong odor of alcohol, watery eyes and slurred speech. Winkle was handcuffed and taken to an East Valley DUI Task Force booking area in Scottsdale, where he agreed to a blood test.
In a conversation with Officer Anibal Espinoza, who made the routine traffic stop, “Ericka stated that she knew neither should be driving because they had been drinking. I told her something to the effect of calling for a cab ride or an Uber would have been a better idea and she agreed,” according to a Tempe police report.
Detective Lily Duran, a Tempe police spokeswoman, said that Winkle’s blood sample is being analyzed by the state Department of Public Safety crime lab and that the results are not expected to be available for at least two weeks.
Duran said it’s possible that Winkle could be cited on additional charges, such as extreme DUI, if his blood alcohol content is 0.15 percent or more. Drivers are presumed under the influence in Arizona with a BAC of 0.08 percent or more.
Winkle is scheduled to appear at a pre-trial conference in Tempe Municipal Court on June 14, according to court records.
Mesa Mayor John Giles declined to comment on Winkle’s arrest. In an interview before Winkle took office, Giles spoke about the new council member in glowing terms, describing Winkle as very enthusiastic about his new position and a young man with a lot of energy.
Giles supported Jerry Lewis, the candidate Winkle defeated, in the 2016 city election, as did Phil Austin, a longtime Mesa attorney and activist.
“I wish him well. I think he’s just a quality guy. I think he is in a position to help the city of Mesa,” Austin said.
Former Mesa Vice Mayor Dennis Kavanaugh, who supported Winkle and considers him a worthy successor in District 3, said that it was too early speculate on Winkle’s political future but that Winkle will have an opportunity to prove himself to voters.
“I think the measure of the man will be how he responds to this and to rise above it so it can be a learning experience for him and community members,” Kavanaugh said in a text message. “I think he has the skill sets to do so. He had three years and nine months left in his term to demonstrate his ability to lead and to serve.”
Lewis, the candidate Winkle defeated, was magnanimous toward Winkle, saying he likes Winkle and considers him a friend. Lewis, an administrator at Sequoia Charter Schools, is primarily known for defeating ex-state Sen. Russell Pearce in a memorable 2011 recall election.
“My feeling is to pray for the man and his family. It’s got to be a difficult time for him,” Lewis said. “I hope he is afforded a fair hearing in the court of public opinion and also in the court of law.”