Fort Pierce mayor election: Linda Hudson, Donna Benton talk police, crime, city’s image

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Laurie K. Blandford
 
| Treasure Coast Newspapers

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Fort Pierce gets a bad wrap.

Both mayoral candidates in the Nov. 3 runoff election want to improve the city’s image — tarnished by drugs and crime decades ago — but in their own ways using their personal styles.

Two-term incumbent Linda Hudson, 76, a Fort Pierce native retired from the healthcare industry, wants to continue the work she said she’s been doing for eight years.

“I want Fort Pierce to be a safe place; I know it to be a safe place,” Hudson said. “But our reputation isn’t as a safe place. I want to improve the reputation of our city.”

Challenger Donna Benton, 61, a real estate broker who’s lived in Fort Pierce since age 11, said she’s ready to make a change to the City Commission.

“Fort Pierce has so much potential and so much to offer,” Benton said. “We need someone at the helm to move Fort Pierce forward.”

Police and crime

Hudson wants to continue improving police relations and public safety.

She approved raises for veteran officers, making the Police Department more competitive in terms of salary at the senior level, and she pushed for the addition of body cameras for transparency. She helped form the city’s police advisory board for better communication between the department and citizens.

“Violent crime is way down. Crime overall isn’t, because we have these car burglaries.”

Crimes in seven categories rose 9.1% in Fort Pierce last year compared to the previous year, according to statistics from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Those categories are murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny and motor vehicle theft.

More: Crime in St. Lucie County down overall, but up in Fort Pierce in 2019

Hudson is trying to educate people to lock their vehicle doors, not leave them running when going into stores and never leave valuables inside vehicles.

Benton said issues at the Police Department regarding crime statistics are part of why she’s running.

“We’re told that the crime rate is down,” Benton said. “But when you really look at the crime rate, it’s because we’re not being transparent. It’s not being recorded.”

More: Police claim to be making crime stats more accurate

She’s had experiences with crime where reports weren’t taken, she said. She doesn’t blame officers, saying they’re being told from the top-down not to write reports. But they need to get back to reporting criminal activity for more accurate statistics, she said.

“If we’re not writing up the crime,” Benton said, “of course, it looks good on paper.”

Diverse city

The U.S. Census Bureau’s population estimate of Fort Pierce as of July 1, 2019, was over 46,000 people, nearly 53% of them female. People under 18 accounted for nearly 25% of the population while people 65 and older accounted for nearly 17%.

Here’s the racial breakdown:

  • 36.3% white 
  • 38.1% Black
  • 23% Hispanic or Latino
  • Less than 1% each of Asians, Native Americans and Pacific Islanders

Hudson said she wants to continue unifying the city, making sure no part of Fort Pierce feels left out.

“I’m very conscious of the fact that we have a diverse city,” Hudson said. “It’s really important for the mayor to be somebody who is a unifier and not a divider.”

Election Guide: Everything you need to know about Nov. 3

While city commissioners are elected by voters only in their districts, the mayor is elected by voters throughout the entire city.

“I’m the one who has to make everybody think about the whole city,” Hudson said. “My style is to work toward consensus and to try to listen.”

She stepped outside her role in 2015 when she suggested Fort Pierce native Nick Mimms become the city’s first Black city manager, who’s still serving today.

“Normally, I don’t do that as mayor,” Hudson said. “I feel like, as mayor, I need to let whatever the issue is play out, so I can see where it would be fair for me to weigh in.”

Benton disagreed, saying Hudson doesn’t vote to improve District 1, mostly the northern half of the city, which doesn’t include the beach.

“It’s very important that we bring the whole city together,” Benton said. “As mayor, it’s your job to share your vision of what you see Fort Pierce to be moving forward and you have a full commission that agrees with you and buys into that vision.”

Benton said she has the ability to bring everyone together.

“I want Fort Pierce to prosper and be a city that everyone should be proud of to live in,” Benton said. “I want to bring that diversity together that we’re one community.”

Negative image

When people discover Fort Pierce, they find its charm and don’t want to leave, Hudson said. But people won’t come if they run a Google search on the city and find news stories about crime.

“The image of Fort Pierce from people who don’t live here is it’s not a safe city,” Hudson said. “That is a problem for us.”

In Fort Pierce, the 2019 crime rate was more than triple that of Port St. Lucie, nearly double that of St. Lucie County and above the statewide rate.

Hudson wants to continue trying to improve the city’s image.

“I know it’s a safe city,” Hudson said. “Bad news hangs around a long time, and you can’t overcome it easily.”

Benton still hears people who live outside the city say, “You can’t go to Fort Pierce or you’ll get shot.”

Many of her clients drive into the city via main corridors, such as Orange Avenue, that look like the city’s junk drawers, she said. The City Commission needs to be more consistent with standards across the city.

She’s learned the importance of how things look after 17 years in the real estate business.

Hudson said the city already is addressing its appearance through code enforcement. Residents can take photographs of potholes or graffiti and upload them to the SeeClickFix app.

“Every complaint gets addressed,” Hudson said. “We are depending on citizens to tell us when something is wrong.”

Benton said code enforcement addresses problems only if residents report them. Instead, she said, the city needs to be proactive at enforcing property maintenance to help the city’s image, which won’t require a lot of money to do.

“We have to be proactive instead of reactive,” Benton said. “The only way we change our perception is to change how we look.”

Better choice

Hudson said residents should vote for her because she’s concerned Benton would take the city back in time to when her husband, Bob Benton, was mayor.

When Hudson first was elected eight years ago, she said the city was $97 million in debt. Bob Benton had just finished serving his fourth term in office — two as commissioner and two as mayor.

“Donna has not been active in the city at all in the past eight years,” Hudson said. “A lot of what I see her say … reflects what it was like in 2012, but not what it’s like in 2020. I’m afraid that we would go back to the old days in Fort Pierce, where your friends were taken care of (and) where there was a racial divide.”

Benton argued the city was in debt because officials had to reinvest in Fort Pierce and improve its infrastructure or the city would have become a ghost town.

The city wouldn’t be going back to the old days with her, Benton said. She acknowledges her connection to her husband because she “learned so much being first lady of Fort Pierce,” but she’s also independent from him.

“I’m different in that I have my own ideas,” Benton said. “I have my own vision for Fort Pierce. Even when he was mayor, we didn’t agree on different things.”

In fact, she said, he tried to talk her out of running, to no avail.

“I’m probably more headstrong and stubborn,” Benton said. “Bob’s laid back and I’m the go-getter. I make things happen.”

Benton said residents should vote for her because she would bring a business perspective to the city, and she knows what businesses need to succeed and how government can help them.

“Fort Pierce is no better off after eight years of her leadership,” Benton said. “I’m not about the ribbon cuttings. We need someone that’s going to be at City Hall, listening to the problem of the constituents.”

Hudson, who works full time as mayor, said when she attends events, she finds people are surprised someone from the city showed up. She’s made it a point to accept every invitation she can, in all kinds of communities, to make sure the city is represented.

“To really know your community, you have to be out in the community,” Hudson said. “You have to go where people live.”

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