City settles two suits against fire chief, but expands its own investigation into her

Bonnie Bleskachek
Minneapolis Fire Chief Bonnie Bleskachek remains on paid leave while the city continues its investigation into her.
MPR Photo/Brandt Williams

Under the terms of the settlement, firefighter Kathleen Mullen will be immediately promoted to the rank of Battalion Chief and receive $29,000. A second firefighter, Jennifer Cornell will be promoted as soon as another position opens up or within two years. She will also receive $65,000.

The two women claimed that Bleskachek unfairly denied them opportunities to advance within the department. Both women, like Bonnie Bleskachek, are lesbians. Cornell is Bleskachek's ex-partner. The two shared custody of Bleskachek's children before they underwent a contentious break up. Mullen is a former friend of Bleskachek who once dated the chief's current girlfriend, who is also a firefighter. Mullen claims she ended her friendship with Bleskachek over the chief's current relationship.

Earlier this year, Mullen, Cornell and 11 other firefighters tested in competition for two Batallion Chief positions. Mullen and Cornell scored the highest on the first section of the test, but the rest of the applicants -- including Bleskachek's girlfriend, Mary Maresca, failed. Bleskachek and other city officials had the tests thrown out.

Mayor R.T. Rybak says the settlement was the right thing to do.

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"I think it's very difficult to make decisions like this, especially because in personnel decisions you can't make public all the information. But I do believe, representing the citizens, in this case it's the best decision for everyone, all things considered," he said.

There's been a lot of allegations and a lot of things that other people have said about me but there hasn't been the opportunity for me to respond to that

The city council also voted to extend it's investigation of Bleskachek. In March, a complaint was filed with the city Human Resources department alleging that the chief violated the city's quote "respect in the workplace" policy. The city hired the law firm of Parker Rosen to investigate and agreed to spend about $50,000 on the contract. However, city staff say during the course of the investigation unspecified "additional matters" were brought to their attention that required a separate investigation. The terms of the contract with the law firm has been increased to about $125,000.

"There's been a lot of allegations and a lot of things that other people have said about me but there hasn't been the opportunity for me to respond to that," Bleskachek told Minnesota Public Radio News in an interview a few days before the terms of the settlements were made public.

Bleskachek couldn't talk about the ongoing investigation. However, following the council's approval of the settlements Friday, Bleskachek's lawyer says the settlements are not an admission of guilt.

In the interview, Bleskachek said she's confident that she didn't do anything wrong.

"The decisions that I made, I'm 100 percent comfortable with every decision I made as chief. Not only was it by the book, but that there were other people involved with it. So even if there was some odd personal feeling involved in any of the allegations from any of the complaintants, there were other people that were involved in those decisions, who I'm very confident would have yanked my chain, so to speak, and said you know I think this is out of line, this is wrong."

Bleskachek is free to talk about allegations made against her in the unsettled discrimination suit. That suit was filed by Kristina Lemon. Lemon alleges that 10 years ago, when Bleskachek was a captain and Lemon was a rookie, that Bleskachek made unwanted sexual advances toward her. She also alleges that Bleskachek had a reputation for hitting on other subordinate female firefighters.

Bleskachek disputes that.

"She can say what she wants. I do not believe that was my reputation. It did not take place. The fire service, anywhere, is basically a rumor mill. And anytime that any two firefighters spend any time together, anywhere, a rumor would start."

Bleskachek says she's looking forward to presenting her case in court. However, a trial may not happen until next fall. Meanwhile, Bleskachek remains on paid leave as the city's investigation continues.