SAFETY HARBOR, Fla. — The race of Safety Harbor mayor is ostensibly a referendum on whether residents are content with the rate of growth in this small northern Pinellas County town of 18,000. But it’s devolved into accusations of meanness on the part of both candidates’ camps.
- Safety Harbor mayoral race gets negative
- Tanja Vidovic taking on incumbent Joe Ayoub
- More political news
Environmental activist and Tampa paramedic and firefighter Tanja Vidovic says she decided to enter the race because she felt that not enough voices in the community are being represented in city government.
“We have a very pro-development Commission right now, and community members are being overlooked in what their wants and needs are,” she told Spectrum Bay News 9 in an interview last week.
Vidovic has been an activist successful in making changes in both her home city of Safety Harbor and Tampa, where she works.
She received a commendation from the Tampa City Council for installing seven community orchards, and also helped pass chicken ordinances in both Tampa and Safety Harbor. She also led the efforts for the Safety Harbor Commission to stop using the controversial Roundup weed killer in city parks.
Vidovic also created Art Walk in Safety Harbor, and was named WMNF news and public affairs programmer of the year in 2019.
Specifically, Vidovic is calling for the city’s land development code to be amended so that a proposed development’s impact on traffic and the environment can be considered “to give the commission the right to say no to these projects.”
The first-time candidate is taking on incumbent Joe Ayoub, a CPA with extensive experience in Safety Harbor government. He served as a City Commissioner from 2007-2013, mayor from 2013-2014, and was then elected as mayor for a full three-year term in 2017.
“I think I have a great record,” he said while sitting with Spectrum Bay News 9 in Baranoff Park last week. “We did a lot of improvements with the Waterfront Park. We started and expanded our tree planting programs. We’ve revitalized our downtown. We’ve focused a lot on quality of life, and we just want to continue that moving forward.”
Ayoub dismisses the claim that development is rampant in Safety Harbor, but he is quick to note that the commission has recently passed an ordinance placing a three-story, 35-foot height limit in and around Main Street, the central thoroughfare in Safety Harbor.
“We listened to the residents and we made dozens of changes to the code to promote more small-town charm type buildings moving forward,” he said.
While the issue of development and growth are common fare in many municipal elections, the vitriol between the two camps has grown unusually toxic — or one would think in a city of 18,000 people.
Critics of Ayoub say that his supporters have been historically aggressive in going after his political opponents. At a City Commission meeting held earlier this month, resident Chris Kent said the city had “been corrupted by Mayor Ayoub and his gang of bullies and attack dogs.”
“Together they repeatedly perpetrate disgusting and despicable attacks on their fellow citizens, in a blatant attempt to intimidate and silence Ayoub’s critics,” he said.
One of his biggest critics is Janet Hooper, who lost to Ayoub in the 2017 election for mayor.
Shortly after she was elected to the City Commission and took office in March of 2015, five allies of Ayoub filed complaints with the state’s Commission on Ethics, alleging that her private position with a non-profit organization receiving city funds presented a conflict of interest with her new position in city government. Nine months later, the Commission found no probable cause with those complaints.
“The message is, if you speak out, they’ll come after you,” Hooper says, still bitter about the experience.
“There was a legitimate concern about an ethics violation,” he says. “If you’re going to run for public office, expect your record to be scrutinized.”
Hooper also claims she lost around 250 signs during her mayoral campaign, which she also alleges were stolen by Ayoub supporters. A similar complaint was made by Ayoub's opponent in the 2014 mayoral contest.
In this race, a website has been created that lists several negative incidents that have occurred with Vidovic, who is perhaps best known for successfully suing the city of Tampa for gender discrimination regarding her tenure with Tampa Fire Rescue. A jury agreed with her allegations that the city discriminated against her because she was pregnant and retaliated against her when she complained by firing her. She ended up being reinstated, and the city was forced to pay her $245,000 in damages.
Ayoub says he doesn’t know who created the site but he says it’s completely legitimate.
“She gets upset about it and says, ’oh, that’s not fair. You’re being negative.’ Well, it’s her record.”
Not exactly, counters Vidovic. “About half of it is incorrect,” she counters.
Regarding the issue that his supporters are too aggressive in “going after” his political opponents, Ayoub says it’s all been blown up out of proportion.
“What’s going on is that there’s probably eight people in this city that are upset about everything – maybe they’re just angry people in general, and they’re always stirring the pot and they’re always looking for confrontation and controversy," he says.
Regarding the allegations that some of his supporters have bullied his political opponents, Ayoub says “I’m staying out of that," and says in fact it's Vidovic supporters who have been the aggressors in some cases.
"I've got people talking about being harassed and bullied by these people," he says, claiming that Vidovic and her supporters have been quick to start filming their interaction with his supporters with their smart phones. "To me, that's a huge intimidation factor."
Vidovic says Ayoub has a choice to make when it comes to these allegations.
“He can support it. He can ignore it. Or he can say this is not the type of city I want to run. He’s making a choice by ignoring it," Vidovic said.
The public seems to be aware of the vitriolic nature of the race. The manager of one local restaurant on Main Street told Spectrum Bay News 9 that both candidates were friends of hers, but she didn't dare say anything more about the race, and certainly not to a reporter.
Election Day is March 17, though voting by mail has been taking place for weeks.