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The Safety Harbor mayor’s race is being shaped by Tampa politics. Here’s how.

Former Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn endorsed one of the candidates. He called the other “toxic.”
The two candidates in the 2020 race for mayor of Safety Harbor. Left, Joe Ayoub, the incumbent. Right, Tanja Vidovic, a community activist and former Tampa firefighter who's challenging Ayoub.
The two candidates in the 2020 race for mayor of Safety Harbor. Left, Joe Ayoub, the incumbent. Right, Tanja Vidovic, a community activist and former Tampa firefighter who's challenging Ayoub. [ Left courtesy of Joe Ayoub. Right, Times ]
Published Mar. 8, 2020|Updated Mar. 11, 2020

SAFETY HARBOR — In February, former Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn made a political endorsement that continues to reverberate across the Tampa Bay area.

No, it wasn’t the one he made in the presidential race. Buckhorn’s initial pick, former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, didn’t survive Super Tuesday.

It was Buckhorn’s endorsement for mayor of Safety Harbor, a fetching town of about 18,000 across the bay from Tampa. Buckhorn threw his support behind incumbent Joe Ayoub, who faces challenger Tanja Vidovic, a Tampa firefighter, in the March 17 election.

MONICA HERNDON   |   Times
Bob Buckhorn, former mayor of Tampa.
MONICA HERNDON | Times Bob Buckhorn, former mayor of Tampa. [ MONICA HERNDON | Tampa Bay Times ]

Vidovic and Buckhorn have a history. In 2017, Vidovic successfully sued Tampa for discriminating against her when she was pregnant. A jury awarded her $245,000 in damages.

“If you want conflict and constant controversy, you have an option,” Buckhorn said in a video endorsing Ayoub. “If you want steady leadership that cares about your community ... re-elect Joe Ayoub.”

Political figures — Buckhorn included — make endorsements in local races all the time. In a normal city, having a normal election season, Buckhorn’s endorsement might have been just one more detail.

But in Safety Harbor, a town already prone to political squabbling, the popular former mayor’s endorsement has reignited talk about a controversial chapter in Tampa’s history.

• • •

In March 2016, Vidovic sued the city, alleging she had been discriminated against dozens of times during her nearly decade-long tenure as a Tampa firefighter. In one instance, a superior told her she would not have gotten pregnant if she “kept her legs closed,” Vidovic alleged. Before she filed her lawsuit, Vidovic had called for changes in the department, including the addition of partitions to separate men’s and women’s shared sleeping quarters in stations.

The city fired Vidovic one day after she filed the lawsuit, alleging she had been “deliberately untruthful” to a superior about medical paperwork.

In December 2017, a jury decided the city had discriminated against Vidovic when she was pregnant, and then retaliated against her for complaining about it. Vidovic was awarded $245,000 and got her job back. She is a Tampa firefighter to this day.

Buckhorn, then mayor of Tampa, vowed the city would appeal the ruling. In March 2018, the city announced it would not, in fact, appeal.

Related: Buckhorn: Tampa will appeal $245,000 verdict in firefighter discrimination case

Once Vidovic was back on the job, she quickly became embroiled in a series of new personnel complaints. Four of her co-workers accused her of lying and creating a hostile work environment. Vidovic filed more than a dozen of her own complaints, alleging, among other things, that her colleagues used inappropriate language and that she felt threatened in the workplace.

The city ultimately found only two of Vidovic’s complaints were substantiated. Neither were harassment-related. Vidovic stands by the complaints.

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• • •

Today, Buckhorn doesn’t pull any punches when talking about how Vidovic affected the Tampa Fire Department.

“Out of the 4,500 employees that I had, I have never seen anybody more toxic in the workplace,” Buckhorn said in a recent interview.

Later, he added: “Everything that comes out of her mouth is usually a lie or a gross exaggeration of the facts.”

Ayoub’s campaign has leveraged Buckhorn’s history with Vidovic, circulating fliers noting that Vidovic was fired from the city. The fliers do not mention that she successfully sued and was reinstated.

A flier circulated in Safety Harbor in advance of the March 17, 2020 City Commission races. The mailer was created by the Joe Ayoub campaign.
A flier circulated in Safety Harbor in advance of the March 17, 2020 City Commission races. The mailer was created by the Joe Ayoub campaign. [ Tanja Vidovic ]

In response, Vidovic said it’s little wonder Buckhorn has hard feelings. She contends it was in part her years of speaking up that forced the city to change its policies: Fire stations have made accommodations for women’s restrooms and added privacy curtains in sleeping quarters.

Buckhorn said Vidovic gets no credit for the changes to the Tampa Fire Department.

“Those decisions were a long time in coming,” Buckhorn said.

• • •

Residents of Safety Harbor might agree with Buckhorn on at least this: The city needs less drama.

The public comment portion of City Commission meetings routinely veers into the absurd, with accusations flying between supporters of Ayoub and Vidovic. One side accuses the other of bullying. Vidovic’s side accuses Ayoub of being in the pocket of developers. Each candidate insists the other is to blame for the division.

Ayoub, a certified public accountant, said in an interview that he always planned to run for re-election on his record. He said he never planned to mention Vidovic’s name during the campaign before Vidovic’s supporters started confronting him at city meetings, .

Related: What a public confrontation tells us about the Safety Harbor mayor’s race

Now, he feels he must defend himself in public. At recent meetings, he’s taken to going back and forth with some of his most ardent critics.

“It’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t. If you don’t respond, they steamroll you,” Ayoub said. “You defend yourself and you create something to talk about.”

The mayor said he would prefer to talk about the historic oak tree the city was able to save in Baranoff Park, or the city-approved development on Main Street built by Bay to Bay Properties, which brought new restaurants to the city. Municipal stuff.

Vidovic, who moved to Safety Harbor in 2015, agrees that the biggest issue in the race is her opponent’s record, but she doesn’t paint such a rosy picture. The Bay to Bay deal involved the city refunding almost $160,000 in development fees in exchange for certain concessions from the developer. To Vidovic, this was an example of Ayoub opening the city to development to help out his friends.

Joe Faw, a manager of Bay to Bay, is friends with Ayoub. The City Commission approved the site plan for the development site by a 4-1 vote in December 2017.

To Ayoub, the race is about credibility. Vidovic’s record in Tampa and Safety Harbor shows that she’s unreliable, Ayoub says.

For instance: Vidovic has said Ayoub played a role in her firing from a part-time position in Safety Harbor’s Leisure Services Department. Ayoub says this is untrue; the City Commission has no power to hire or fire part-time city staffers. A letter of dismissal from the city said Vidovic was “disruptive in the workplace” in “multiple situations.”

Ayoub has brought up Vidovic’s history with the Tampa Fire Department to bolster his argument that her word is not to be trusted.

But Vidovic wears criticism from Buckhorn and Ayoub like a badge of honor. She spoke up in Tampa, she says, and she’ll keep speaking up in Safety Harbor.

“A lot of these issues that they point to as a negative are the things I’m most proud of,” Vidovic said.

Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.

Editor’s note: Tanja Vidovic was fired from the City of Tampa in 2016 after officials said she had been “deliberately untruthful” to a superior about medical paperwork. A federal judge later determined her firing was an act of retaliation and she was reinstated. An earlier version of this story was unclear on the reason for her firing.

For more information about the Safety Harbor elections, click here.

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