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In Safety Harbor mayor’s race, who’s behind this anonymous website?

“I don’t understand how someone could feel threatened by me."
Mayor Joe Ayoub, left and Tampa firefighter Tanja Vidovic, right, the two candidates in the 2020 Safety Harbor mayor’s race.
Mayor Joe Ayoub, left and Tampa firefighter Tanja Vidovic, right, the two candidates in the 2020 Safety Harbor mayor’s race. [ Photo courtesy of Joe Ayoub; photo courtesy of Tanja Vidovic ]
Published Mar. 11, 2020
Updated Mar. 12, 2020

SAFETY HARBOR — Election season is always tense in Safety Harbor.

Negative literature blankets the tiny city. Rivals and their supporters go back and forth, sometimes in public, often on Facebook. This cycle, two seats are up for grabs on the five-person City Commission, including the mayor’s seat. The election is March 17.

Related: Safety Harbor citizens group says the city ‘is fighting for its life’

That mayor’s race, which pits incumbent Joe Ayoub against Tampa firefighter Tanja Vidovic, has been particularly contentious, even for Safety Harbor. For weeks, supporters of Ayoub have been advertising a website, InformedSafetyHarbor.com, which claims to offer “objective” information backed by public records about Tanja Vidovic. Vidovic claims it’s a site filled with half-truths, most of which her team has disputed on her own campaign website, TanjaForSafetyHarbor.com.

But whether the site’s claims are accurate or not, Vidovic says Ayoub should be doing more to discourage anonymous online attacks.

“By not saying that this is inappropriate, he’s allowing it to happen,” Vidovic said. “By saying that he sees nothing wrong with it, he’s encouraging it.”

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

Ayoub, who said he has nothing to do with the site, said the information about Tanja on InformedSafetyHarbor “appears factual.” The site states on its homepage it “is not authorized or financed by any campaign.”

In February, a few large signs advertising the website appeared along roads in east Safety Harbor. Soon after, at least one citizen complained the signs violated city code. (The signs did violate a size ordinance, said City Manager Matt Spoor.) Ayoub told his supporters in a Facebook post to take down the signs. They did so. It’s unclear exactly who was behind the signs.

InformedSafetyHarbor elaborates on many of the same claims Ayoub made in a February campaign mailer. Like Ayoub’s mailer, the website highlighted that Vidovic was fired from the City of Tampa. Also like Ayoub’s mailer, InformedSafetyHarbor failed to point out that after her firing, Vidovic successfully sued the city for discrimination and retaliation, and was reinstated.

After this story was published online Wednesday, InformedSafetyHarbor changed its homepage to scrub mention of Vidovic’s firing from Tampa.

A screen grab taken of the home page of InformedSafetyHarbor.com on Wednesday, March 11.
A screen grab taken of the home page of InformedSafetyHarbor.com on Wednesday, March 11. [ InformedSafetyHarbor (screen grab) ]
A screen grab of InformedSafetyHarbor.com taken Thursday, March 12. The site scrubbed its mention of Tanja Vidovic's firing from the City of Tampa after a story published by the Tampa Bay Times went online Wednesday.
A screen grab of InformedSafetyHarbor.com taken Thursday, March 12. The site scrubbed its mention of Tanja Vidovic's firing from the City of Tampa after a story published by the Tampa Bay Times went online Wednesday. [ InformedSafetyHarbor.com (screen grab) ]

The online domain name InformedSafetyHarbor.com is registered to a Contact Privacy Inc. customer number. Contact Privacy is a service which shields the identity of domain name holders from the public. The Tampa Bay Times submitted a request for comment asking whether the person behind the website would identify themselves Tuesday via an online form provided by Contact Privacy Inc. In an emailed response, the author declined to do so.

The unnamed author of the website wrote on the site that anonymous political speech is a rich tradition in America that dates back to the time of the Founding Fathers. The author also wrote they fear retribution from Vidovic if the author’s name is made public.

Vidovic said the author’s concern about retaliation is baseless.

“I don’t understand how someone could feel threatened by me. I’ve stood up for what’s right, I don’t attack individual people,” Vidovic said. “I don’t understand why that would even cross their minds.”

Ayoub contended that some have “legitimate concerns” over potential retribution because of what he describes as Vidovic’s history of public confrontations. The campaign mailer of his highlights a September 2018 incident, in which Vidovic was asked to leave a county park by sheriff’s deputies after confronting a Pinellas contractor who was spraying an herbicide Vidovic took issue with. Informed Safety Harbor also notes the incident.

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

Vidovic said the discussion she had with the employees at the park, which she live streamed on Facebook, was a step toward creating awareness about the dangers of the herbicide. Safety Harbor government does not use the herbicide anymore.

Former City Commissioner Janet Hooper, who lost to Ayoub in the 2017 mayor’s race, said the anonymous website about Vidovic is similar to one of the anonymous sites she remembers being live during her campaign, JanetHoopertruth.com. Hooper said she doesn’t know who was behind that website, either. The domain is no longer active.

Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

This story was updated Thursday, March 12, 2020 to reflect the changes to InformedSafetyHarbor.com’s homepage.