Minneapolis fire chief to leave her post

Bonnie Bleskachek
Minneapolis Fire Chief Bonnie Bleskachek.
MPR Photo/Brandt Williams

Bleskachek's legal troubles have already cost city taxpayers more than $90,000 in legal settlements. And since March, Bleskachek -- who makes more than $112,000 a year -- has been on paid administrative leave.

Bleskachek was put on leave because she's the target of a city human resources investigation. Last month, the City Council authorized an expansion of the probe, which is being conducted by an outside law firm. Under the agreement with the firm, the city could spend up to $125,000 to investigate the complaint.

A spokesman for Mayor R.T. Rybak says he no longer has confidence in her ability to lead the department. City council Vice President Robert Lilligren declined to offer his opinion on the chief's performance, but acknowledged that public confidence in the city is at stake.

"I think it's important that we have steady and stable leadership in the fire department," says Lilligren. "It's a key department, where public safety is concerned. And I think the communities that we represent deserve that." Lilligren says he's also heard complaints from some constituents about the amount of money spent on Bleskachek's legal matters.

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We have been in negotiations with the city ... to figure out a plan to bring Bonnie back to work. And she hasn't been interested in coming back to the position of chief.

Last month the city settled complaints from firefighters Kathleen Mullen and Jennifer Cornell. They alleged that Bleskachek unfairly denied them opportunities to advance within the department. Under the terms of the settlements, both women will receive promotions to battalion chief, and back pay of just over $90,000.

Bleskachek has said the settlements are not an admission of guilt and says she understands why the city decided to settle.

Bleskachek and the two plaintiffs are lesbians. A third lesbian firefighter, Kristina Lemon, sued Bleskachek on similar grounds. However, she says Bleskachek hit on her at a time when Bleskachek was a captain, and Lemon was a rookie.

Lemon says the chief denied her a chance to rise through the ranks after she rebuffed Bleskachek's advances. Bleskachek has said those charges are false. That lawsuit is still pending. And so is a complaint filed recently by a male firefighter, Elondo Wright, who accuses Bleskachek of discriminating against him because he's a heterosexual.

Bleskachek's attorney Jerry Burg says she will accept a demotion, and is looking forward to getting back to work.

"We have been in negotiations with the city for a number of weeks to figure out a plan to bring Bonnie back to work. And she hasn't been interested in coming back to the position of chief," Burg says.

Burg says Bleskachek will take a voluntary demotion to captain. That means Bleskachek could return to work as a firefighter with a rank beneath some of the women who sued her -- an irony that didn't escape Burg.

"I guess that puts the new chief in a position of having to be relatively mindful of history and making good organizational decisions, doesn't it?" Burg says.

The spokesman for Mayor Rybak would not comment on discussions about what's next for Bleskachek.

Rybak will present his recommendation for Bleskachek's removal at Tuesday's executive committee meeting. Her removal as chief could be before the full council on Friday.