The meeting began with a prayer for civility.
For the third time in two weeks, a peculiar tension hung in the commission chambers of the Safety Harbor City Hall. At issue, at least partially, was what did or did not happen between a mayoral candidate and a member of a volunteer city board at a Third Friday event in the city’s signature downtown.
But even that controversy was just a symptom of what always seems to lurk beneath the surface in Safety Harbor, a quaint city of 18,000 where the median household income is 42 percent higher than that of Pinellas County.
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On Nov. 15, the third Friday of the month, Tanja Vidovic, the candidate, and Victor Curti, a member of the planning and zoning board, got into a loud public argument.
Months before, Vidovic posted on social media about her fear that the owner of the Safety Harbor Resort and Spa planned to cut down trees to build condominiums nearby.
“Feel free to start protesting,” Vidovic wrote.
Kevin LaBrie, Curti’s husband, saw the post and decided to look into it. He asked City Manager Matt Spoor for more information that could confirm or refute Vidovic’s post. To Spoor, this constituted a public records request. So Spoor sent LaBrie an email chain that included correspondence with Vidovic.
When Vidovic learned of the request — or non-request, depending on whom you ask — she filed a request of her own asking for all of Curti’s records “regarding all city matters.”
It took Curti more than 50 hours over a period of weeks to sift through 12,000 personal emails to fulfill the request, he said.
This made him upset.
“You affected my life for two months with a completely vindictive, nasty thing that is the most awful thing anyone has ever done to me,” Curti, a supporter of Mayor Joe Ayoub, told Vidovic at Third Friday, according to video taken of part of the incident.
Ayoub, Vidovic’s opponent in the March 2020 mayor’s race, doesn’t agree with the premise of this article. To him, the confrontation between Curti and Vidovic is typical behavior for the latter. It wasn’t about development at all.
“She just looks for trouble,” Ayoub said, noting the city fired her from a part-time leisure services position in August. “Now that she’s running for office, she’s trying to raise her profile and make a point with some of this stuff.”
To Vidovic, the mayor’s rhetoric is further evidence of the culture of pro-development “intimidation” that has typified Ayoub’s time in office.
Ayoub said this is “baloney.”
“I don’t consider myself pro-development. I have voted for some development projects,” Ayoub said, such as the recent development at 201 Main St., that got about $160,000 in public support. “I look at it as, does it fit the code, or does it not fit the code?”
Controversies in Safety Harbor never seem to stray too far from the question of development.
Take Monday’s meeting. Ayoub asked residents with thoughts about the Third Friday incident to wait until the end of the gathering to speak. So for hours, those residents waited through a public hearing about a proposed development. Luckily, many of them had a take on that, too.
Vidovic took notes as the city commission painstakingly weighed whether the development would overwhelm the eastern edge of the city with traffic.
Nearly four hours into the meeting, the City Commission voted 3-2 to approve the project, 22,000 square feet of office space on the currently-vacant parcel at the intersection of State Road 580 and Philippe Parkway. Ayoub voted in favor. Some in the audience booed. Some wearily applauded.
Around 10:45 that night, the mayor opened public comment to residents wishing to speak on the Third Friday incident.
Before Monday, the city had already dedicated hours of public meetings to the disagreement, including an entire Nov. 25 special meeting. Ultimately, the commission had decided against any discipline for Curti, who apologized for letting his emotions get the better of him during the confrontation. The vote was 3-2.
That didn’t settle the issue. One after another, residents strode to the public microphone, either in defense of Vidovic or Curti. The line between opinions on Third Friday and personal grievances against city commissioners was blurred, if it existed at all.
Resident Jarine Dotson, a Vidovic defender, concluded her allotted three minutes by telling Mayor Joe Ayoub, “I do not trust you. I’m sorry, that’s just the way it is.”
“The feeling is mutual,” Ayoub responded. “Thank you, your time is up.”