Safety Harbor Elections: A Tradition Like No Other

​SAFETY HARBOR – Another spring, another local election.

What did such a fine little town as Safety Harbor do to deserve this?

To suggest Safety Harbor elections are opportunities for citizens to voice contrasting opinions is a lot like saying the Coronavirus may cause flu-like symptoms. Over the years, as this north Pinellas County town of 18,000 on Old Tampa Bay struggled to find a comfortable balance between its once quaint but blighted past and its recent discovery as “The Jewel of Tampa Bay” (and the growth that comes with it) local politics turned dramatically into a bad Jason Bourne sequel.

Before an election a few years ago, the SH status-quo, anti-growth side went so far as to throw dog poop into numerous homes at new construction sites to protest the increase in new downtown residences. Then there was a “property shaming” campaign, where new residents and their new homes were insulted and identified on social media. There was also the big lie: blaming a controversial condo project on current Mayor Joe Ayoub, despite the project having been approved more than a dozen years before Ayoub first ran for SH public office.

And, finally, who can forget the “Newcomers aren’t welcome here!” that appeared on, of all places, Nothing says “Welcome, new neighbor,” quite like a freshly baked apple pie spiked with Ex lax. It’s not like grandma used to make.

Not to be left out of all this jocular hi-jinx, an opposing group of progressive, pro-growth residents finally organized and three years ago struck back during election season with a satirical Facebook page featuring memes, editorial cartoons and cynical wit.

One particular meme, now forever ingrained in SH political history as “The Hitler Video,” drew reactions that ranked anywhere from boiling hate to supportive hysterics.

The meme, taken from the 2004 movie “Downfall,” was set during the Battle of Berlin in World War II when Nazi Germany was on the verge of defeat, and depicts the final days of Adolf Hitler.

It has since become the product of endless parodies called “Hitler Rants,” where the German dialog is dubbed with sub-titles, making light of almost any subject or cause.

Although the SH version never referenced the candidate as Hitler – only a subject of Hitler’s ranting – reaction from the targeted side went from zero to boiling point in seconds.

But in another case of “Only in Safety Harbor …” it was later learned that the candidate who felt offended and angry at “being called Hitler” in such a “disgusting video” years earlier had “Liked” a Facebook post of the exact same meme when it was used to poke fun at a college football team’s most fierce rival.

And now, March 17, Election Day is only weeks away. What can possibly live up to such a rich Safety Harbor tradition?

Funny you should ask.
Say hello to Tanja Vidovic.
Or don’t.

“If you see Tanja Vidovic out there, I would not look at her. I would not talk to her. She’s looking for something,” SH commissioner Carlos Diaz, also up for re-election, said during a recent city commission meeting that dealt with a public she-said, he-said dispute between the candidate and a city board member volunteer. “You see her, you should run.”

Vidovic, a Tampa Fire Fighter in her late 30s, has no previous political experience at any level, has never served on a city government voluntary board and has no recorded experience managing any budget larger than her household account.

She does, however, own an extensive resume’ of conflict and controversy.

Law suits, discrimination charges, and allegations of bullying and threats have followed her like bloodhounds on a hunting scent. Public records compiled by show Vidovic has sued multiple employers, including the Tampa Fire Department. Vidovic made multiple unsubstantiated complaints against co-workers. Vidovic claims the city retaliated against her after the complaints.

She did receive a settlement and returned to duty two years ago. In the time since, she has filed 18 more claims against the Tampa Fire Department, with only one substantiated – a co-worker using a foul word after finding his lunch had been taken out of the firehouse refrigerator.

Following the 2018-2019 investigation, the TFD report stated:

“Firefighter Vidovic has consistently failed to recount critical information necessary for the City to properly investigate her claims of improper treatment. Additionally, she was not forthcoming with documentations when ordered to provide it. … Firefighter Vidovic’s account of events is routinely different from that of witnesses to the same event. Witness accounts are consistently more credible.”

And since becoming a resident of Safety Harbor, she has been removed by sheriff deputies and then banned from Phillppe Park for harassing workers over the use of pesticides, is charged with bullying neighbors over their use of a mosquito treatment company and was fired from a part-time position with the City of SH for threatening and bullying a co-worker. She then falsely claimed SH Mayor Joe Ayoub, who she is now running against, fired her. (Safety Harbor’s governing structure does not give a mayor power to hire or fire city employees.)

Meanwhile, during Ayoub’s mayoral reign, Safety Harbor has experienced the greatest boom time in its 103-year history. The first new construction on Main Street in 10 years was completed late last year, and the results are stellar: a three-story, mixed-use project that brought high-end Key West-style architecture, three trendy, new restaurants, 24 luxury apartments, offices and additional parking spaces to downtown.

Across the street, the new Baranoff Park was recently created and dedicated, saving the Baranoff Oak, the oldest oak tree – estimated between 300 and 500 years of age – in Pinellas County and adding green space in downtown. Also, improvements have continued on developing Waterfront Park – which languished before Ayoub, a CPA, was elected – and a major expansion has been completed to the city recreation center. A tree-planting initiative has added 100s of oaks to the city landscape festival and special events are turning the once over-looked community into a destination for visitors.

And, throughout this boom, city taxes remain the lowest in Pinellas County, homeowner property values have soared and new businesses and residents arrive steadily – all adding to the city’ coffers, which improves quality of life.

Even the Hallmark Network came to Safety Harbor last year to film a movie – “Love in the Sun.”

“The choices in this election are stark,” popular former Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said when offering Ayoub his endorsement. “If you want conflict and constant controversy, you have an option. If you want more drama, more divisiveness, more dysfunction in city government, you have an option. If you want strong leadership that cares about your community, that is thoughtful, that doesn’t do drama and lives to make Safety Harbor a better place, vote for Joe Ayoub.”

Nevertheless, there is at least one who remains unimpressed.

Shelly Schellenberg, a long-time negative and outspoken voice for status quo and zero growth recently dug deep into her thesaurus to post this on her Facebook page:

“Deceitful. Not to be trusted – double-dealing – treacherous – traitorous – two-faced – unfaithful – duplicitous – unprincipled – unscrupulous – corrupt – shady – shifty – underhanded – unreliable – undependable – capricious – fickle – slippery – iffy – dodgy – shocky folks abusing their power right now. Take this opportunity to vote. Safety Harbor needs NEW and BETTER leadership.”

It’s a crazy time of the year – deserved, or not.

Mick Elliott – Safety Harbor Resident Blogger
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