Water agency retiree hits at Detroit Councilman Benson
Correction: This story has been updated to say that Detroit Councilman Scott Benson spent 82 hours or more than three days in jail in 2015 for a drunk driving conviction, according to Oakland County Sheriff’s Office records.
Councilman Scott Benson is vying for re-election in northeast Detroit against a city Water Department retiree who is president of two neighborhood groups.
Russ Bellant is making a second attempt to win the District 3 seat after losing the 2013 primary election.
But Bellant could face a tough battle against the first-term councilman who won the August primary with 55 percent of the vote to the challenger’s 18 percent in a five-candidate field.
District 3 is a diverse mix of neighborhoods and an industrial corridor, as well as Hmong and Bengali populations.
Benson faced controversy earlier in his term when he spent 82 hours, or more than three days, in jail in 2015 for a drunken driving conviction. He was found slumped behind the wheel of his city-issued 2008 Ford Crown Victoria at a traffic signal on the southbound Southfield service drive near Eight Mile.
He told The Detroit News at the time: “I’m hoping others can take a lesson from this.”
Bellant has not made it an issue in the campaign. Instead, the 69-year-old challenger argues that residents haven’t had a voice in the community benefits ordinance and he wants to change that.
“It’s widely believed in our district ... that Benson is really focused on downtown development issues and hasn’t delivered anything of substance to our district,” Bellant said.
But Benson, 48, argues that he has looked out for District 3 residents by helping attract development and introducing the community benefits ordinance that voters approved last November. It requires developers of major projects to engage residents to negotiate jobs, affordable housing or other benefits.
“What I don’t want to see is a situation where I let my residents down,” Benson told The Detroit News. “But I do want to see that they are able to hold us up and say ‘Hey, we’ve got someone who is working hard for us and bringing resources to an area that admittedly people will say was under-resourced and underserved for decades.”
The incumbent is taking credit for helping create 1,000 jobs and bringing $150 million in development to his district. The mayor’s office traditionally takes the lead in economic development efforts.
The councilman said he advocated for the opening of Linc logistics center in 2015 and Flex-n-Gate — slated to begin operations next year — which are boosting the economy in District 3.
Benson also argues he has improved resources for the elderly through a senior task force and organized neighborhood events. There have been meetings where residents can offer feedback on development projects, he said.
One of his major accomplishments, Benson says, is closing down “ultra-violent” or non-compliant strip clubs with his Sexually Oriented Business Ordinance.
Bellant, president of the “We Care About 7 Mile Van Dyke” neighborhood association, is campaigning to revert a portion of federal demolition funds back to helping low-income families avoid foreclosure.
The Hardest Hit Fund was set up to give aid to families who had trouble paying their mortgages, but some of Michigan’s federal money in recent years was redirected to communities such as Detroit and Pontiac that want to demolish blighted homes and buildings to stabilize neighborhoods and improve property values.
The HelCo Block Club president and treasurer of the Detroit Police Community Relations Council in the Ninth Precinct also wants to see water rates reduced and the elimination of a drainage fee in Detroiters’ water bills.
“We need to see where the money is going and what we are paying for,” Bellant said. “If there are expenses that are outside the realm of the (water department) services, if there are debt issues that aren’t being properly shared.”
Bellant said he also believes that his experience running citywide programs as a city employee gave him the skills necessary for City Council.