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Buckhorn urged to name woman as fire chief in wake of discrimination suit

TAMPA — In the wake of a female firefighter’s victory against the city in a discrimination lawsuit, Mayor Bob Buckhorn is being urged to name a high-ranking woman to replace retiring fire Chief Tom Forward.

Earlier this month, Buckhorn said he will name a replacement from within the ranks.

A women’s Facebook group with 15,200 members, called "Surly Feminists for the Revolution," recently weighed in on the process, casting the selection as a referendum on the discrimination and retaliation case brought by firefighter Tanja Vidovic — and the department’s reaction to it.

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On Monday, Vidovic told the Tampa Bay Times that she believes the department’s training division chief Susan Tamme is the best choice to replace Forward, who retires May 20.

In February, a federal jury awarded Vidovic $245,000 in damages, deciding she had proved allegations that she was discriminated against because she was pregnant and that the city retaliated against her when she complained. She won her job back and recently returned to work.

A post Friday by Tampa attorney Erin Aebel, co-founder of the Facebook group, urged members to email Buckhorn and advocated for the mayor to name Tamme as chief.

Tamme has served at the department for 24 years. She became the department’s first female division chief in 2014 and makes nearly $122,000 a year.

Tamme testified at Vidovic’s trial that she had been passed over for promotion three times by Forward. Tamme told jurors that the chief told her she had been expected to help out with the Vidovic "situation" and failed to do so, showing what was called a failure of leadership.

"Susan Tamme was the ONLY firefighter with enough courage to stand up on stand and tell the truth," Aebel wrote in her post.

Buckhorn’s office has received three emails asking him to choose Tamme, said spokeswoman Ashley Bauman. All three emails came within hours of Aebel’s post. Two of them used language nearly identical to Aebel’s post.

None of the emails came from Aebel.

Contacted by the Times on Monday, Aebel said the Facebook group’s rules prohibit sharing posts and identifying posters.

"We do not comment on posts made in our closed group," she said.

Asked about the requests, Buckhorn’s office released a statement but didn’t address the emails.

"He will make his decision in due course and it would be unfair to all of the potential candidates to mention any specific names at this point," Bauman wrote in an email Friday.

Tamme is outranked by two assistant chiefs — Nick Locicero and Milton Jenkins, who both make $134,347 a year.

She is at the same level of leadership as five other chiefs, including rescue chief Barbara Tripp. They all make the same salary — $121,867.

The other chiefs are Daniel Olegario, airport; Todd Alt, personnel; Mark Bogush, special operations; and John Reed, fire marshal.

Bogush was involved in a failing personnel review of Vidovic in 2015.

"Vidovic on several occasions has challenged her superiors and challenged the (rules and regulations) that govern conduct at TFR," Bogush wrote Nov. 6, 2015. "She does not grasp the concept of congregate housing. Vidovic appears to have no concern for the safety of herself or the safety of her unborn child as she continues to work full duty as a firefighter."

Contacted Monday by the Times, Vidovic sent a text saying she believed Tamme is the best pick for fire chief.

"I think that the best person for the promotion is the person who has the experience and training, but also one who is willing to stand up for what is right," Vidovic wrote. "In my opinion, with Susan Tamme’s training and experience, she would make the leader that Tampa Fire Rescue needs."

Vidovic originally filed a federal employment complaint in 2015, alleging, among other things, that three captains asked her for sex and that the city retaliated against her after she complained about several issues, such as a lack of female bathrooms at most station houses.

She said after her victory in Tampa federal court that because she and other female firefighters spoke out, the department started to make changes including the promotion of more women and progress toward work privacy for female firefighters.

Tamme declined comment for this story, saying through a fire department spokesman that the decision on the next chief is Buckhorn’s to make.

Contact Charlie Frago at [email protected] or (727)893-8459. [email protected]

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