Tuesday, August 21, 2018
Opinion

Daniel Ruth: Buckhorn stood with good ol’ boys as firefighter proved city harassed her

They tried to shut her up. They tried to make her go away. They made her life miserable. Yet Tanja Vidovic — persisted.

Long before most people had ever heard of the knuckle-dragging sexually harassing escapades of oafs like Harvey Weinstein, or Roy Moore, or Matt Lauer, the 36-year-old Vidovic was doing battle with the misogynistic good old boys at the Tampa Fire Rescue Department, who saw her not as a dedicated professional first responder but merely a nagging trouble-maker.

Her sin? Wanting to be treated with civility, professionalism and respect. Amazing, isn’t it, how that morphed into a fireable offense? But it did.

Days ago a jury awarded Vidovic $245,00 in her federal lawsuit against the city of Tampa, finding fire department officials had discriminated against her because she was pregnant and retaliated against her when she filed a discrimination complaint.

It never should have come to this. After all, the tip-off that the city was in deep legal trouble was evident last January when in a robustly written order denying a motion to dismiss Vidovic’s lawsuit, federal District Judge Elizabeth Kovachevich noted the former firefighter had clearly established a long and troubling pattern of abuse throughout the Tampa Fire Rescue Department at the hands of numerous male co-workers and supervisors.

"The Court can reasonably infer from the allegations of the Second Amended Complaint that Ms. Vidovic did not merely suffer innumerable discrete discriminatory acts, but a hostile work environment," Kovachevich wrote. "The complaint stands."

That might have been a good time to simply cut Vidovic a check, give back her job and fire the dolts who caused her so much grief. Instead, the city went ahead to trial. Not exactly a keen legal acumen moment.

The four-week federal trial resulted in much more than an aggrieved victim of official harassment getting her just deserved due. It also exposed very publicly a culture of sexism, bullying, harassment and discrimination by a department hierarchy of obtuse little men arbitrarily flexing their power — simply because they thought they could get away with it.

Jurors heard numerous accounts of Vidovic being disciplined for petty infractions, while male firefighters who engaged in the same mistakes were overlooked.

Vidovic was sexually propositioned by a superior. Well into her pregnancy, not only was she forced to undergo a grueling fitness for duty test, but when she passed with flying colors she was ordered to do it again — and passed it again.

Male colleagues with less experience were given promotions ahead of Vidovic. She was mocked by male firefighters for pumping breast milk at the station house. And when she complained to the human resources department about her treatment, suddenly her performance reviews, which were once glowing, started to decline. Coincidence?

On March 17, 2016, Vidovic received a Notice of Right To Sue Defendant from the United States Department of Justice. Days later, on March 24, after filing her lawsuit against the city of Tampa, she was fired.

Bob Buckhorn has been a good mayor of the city. And he is a good man. But Buckhorn also has a dark, almost irrational, blindside when it comes to courting the first responder community. For years, Buckhorn has failed to hold Tampa Fire Rescue accountable for its tawdry historic and systemic mistreatment of women within its ranks.

The mayor could have stopped all this in its tracks. He could have ordered the city’s attorneys to settle with Vidovic. He could have made things right. Instead he did nothing.

Would the mayor had been so casually indifferent to the plight of a woman suffering so many indignities at Tampa Fire Rescue if the victim had been one of his two daughters?

Tampa fire Chief Tom Forward could have stopped the harassment, the mistreatment of Vidovic. He could have made things right, too. Instead he fired her.

Time magazine recently honored the women who have come forward to acknowledge their sexual harassment in the workplace, which it called the Silence Breakers, as its 2017 Person of the Year.

That notable group should also include Tanja Vidovic, who was willing to take on the city’s most powerful political figure, as well as a deeply entrenched bureaucracy of sexism.

She persisted. And the city is better for it.

Comments
Editorial: The Catholic Church’s proper response to Pennsylvania scandal

Editorial: The Catholic Church’s proper response to Pennsylvania scandal

Forceful words are coming from the pope’s pen as well as pulpits around Tampa Bay: The sexual abuse of minors, which proliferated for decades within the Roman Catholic Church, were not merely sins but crimes whose repercussions are still being felt b...
Published: 08/20/18
Editorial: Did Rick Scott’s wallet affect his epiphany on rail line?

Editorial: Did Rick Scott’s wallet affect his epiphany on rail line?

Within weeks of taking office in 2011, Gov. Rick Scott made one of the worst decisions of his administration and refused $2.4 billion in federal money for a high-speed rail line between Tampa and Orlando. Within months of leaving office, the governor...
Published: 08/17/18
Editorial: Hillsborough has a place among growing number of governments suing opioid makers

Editorial: Hillsborough has a place among growing number of governments suing opioid makers

Local governments across the land can find plenty of reasons to go after the drug industry over the crisis of opioid addiction.Hillsborough County can find more reasons than most.• In 2016, the county led the state with 579 babies born addicted to dr...
Published: 08/17/18
Editorial: Here’s what needs to be done to stop algae blooms

Editorial: Here’s what needs to be done to stop algae blooms

The environmental crisis in South Florida has fast become a political crisis. Politicians in both parties are busy blaming one another for the waves of toxic algae blooms spreading out from Lake Okeechobee and beyond, fouling both coasts and damaging...
Published: 08/15/18
Updated: 08/20/18
Editorial: Journalists are friends of democracy, not the enemy

Editorial: Journalists are friends of democracy, not the enemy

It is real news that the Hillsborough County School District said this week it will accelerate testing for lead in drinking water and release the results after the Tampa Bay Times reported testing would take years and that until we asked families wer...
Published: 08/15/18
Updated: 08/16/18

Bumping into GOP cowardice on guns

One small island of sanity in the generally insane ocean of American gun culture is the near-complete federal ban on civilian possession of fully automatic weapons — machine guns.The nation got a bitter taste last year of what we’d be facing on a reg...
Published: 08/14/18
Updated: 08/17/18
Editorial: Vaccinations are safe way to prevent measles

Editorial: Vaccinations are safe way to prevent measles

The revelation that three people in Pinellas County have contracted the measles virus should be a wake-up call to everyone to get vaccinated if they haven’t been — and to implore parents to immunize their kids. Contagious diseases such as measles can...
Published: 08/14/18
Updated: 08/17/18
Editorial: Habitat for Humanity still has questions to answer about selling mortgages

Editorial: Habitat for Humanity still has questions to answer about selling mortgages

A good reputation can vanish overnight, which is why Habitat for Humanity of Hills-borough County made a smart decision by announcing it would seek to buy back 12 mortgages it sold to a Tampa company with a history of flipping properties. The arrange...
Published: 08/14/18
Editorial: Vote — or a minority of the electorate will decide your future without you

Editorial: Vote — or a minority of the electorate will decide your future without you

40%of Americans who were eligible to vote for president in 2016 just didn’t bother. That number dwarfs the portion of all eligible voters who cast a ballot for President Donald Trump — 27.6 percent — or, for that matter, Hillary Clinton, 28.8 percent...
Published: 08/13/18
Updated: 08/17/18
Editorial: Why stand your ground has to go

Editorial: Why stand your ground has to go

Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe made a reasonable decision to charge Michael Drejka with manslaughter in last month’s deadly Clearwater convenience store parking lot confrontation. The shooting, which erupted over use of a handicap parkin...
Published: 08/13/18