Saturday, April 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.

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