Editorial: City of Tampa should tread carefully while investigating firefighter it wronged

Tanya Vidovic, center, wipes tears from her eyes while talking with her husband Jared Vidovic, left, and her lawyer, Ryan Barack, right, during a break in an investigative hearing Wednesday at Tampa Fire Rescue. [ANASTASIA DAWSON   |   Times]
Tanya Vidovic, center, wipes tears from her eyes while talking with her husband Jared Vidovic, left, and her lawyer, Ryan Barack, right, during a break in an investigative hearing Wednesday at Tampa Fire Rescue. [ANASTASIA DAWSON | Times]
Published August 2 2018
Updated August 3 2018

The city of Tampa should tread carefully as it considers new disciplinary charges against firefighter Tanja Vidovic, who lost and then regained her job at Tampa Fire Rescue after winning a federal discrimination case.

Three months after returning to work, Vidovic appeared Wednesday before an investigative hearing into two new complaints — untruthfulness and creating a hostile work environment.

The full story of these latest complaints won’t be known until the process now underway plays out. As a personnel matter guided by state law and city policy, many of the details remain secret.

But Vidovic’s earlier mistreatment merits a word of caution to the city: Stay away from any appearance of retribution.

Vidovic took the city to court, and in December, after nearly four weeks of trial, a jury quickly found in the firefighter’s favor. Two months later, a judge ordered the city to give Vidovic her job back.

The decision clearly stuck in the craw of leaders with the fire department and the city. Mayor Bob Buckhorn, defending the integrity of his fire department, said there would be an appeal. But all that evaporated in the face of backlash from the public and the judge’s order returning Vidovic to her job.

It was not Tampa’s finest moment.

Vidovic said at the time that she thought her case and the statements of other women were making a difference at Tampa Fire Rescue. She saw more women get promoted. She saw progress being made as the department added privacy curtains after a series of Tampa Bay Times articles on the treatment of women firefighters.

She returned to the workplace that been so unfair toward her, still eager to carry out the mission of service that drives most first responders. Today, it appears, she is fighting for her job again.

As it pursues its investigation, the city of Tampa should be mindful of the sea change in workplace relations that has emerged from the #metoo movement.

The Vidovic case had already showcased firehouses as a male bastion where women struggle to be taken seriously. This broader national movement, arising first from revelations about abuses in the entertainment industry, has now spurred soul-searching in every work sector and a paradigm shift among employers who understand and accept its implications.

Let’s hope the city of Tampa is one of them.

The Vidovic investigation comes in the same week the City Council is asking Tampa Fire Rescue to appear for a discussion on how it trains its members in workplace diversity — and on how to add more robust education about the unconscious stereotypes known as implicit bias.

Let’s also hope Fire Rescue leaders incorporate this training into their own work on the Vidovic investigation.

There is more at stake here than the future of one 36-year-old wife and mother of three who signed on as a Tampa firefighter 10 years ago.

There’s the reputation of the department and the city, something Buckhorn prides himself on. And there’s the message this case will send to other girls and women who may be considering careers in firefighting.

For all the reasons the city has been aggressive in trying to diversify its work force, it needs more women joining the ranks of its first responders. How it treats the ones already there will go a long way toward showing whether they’re welcome.

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