Rybak says city will not be deterred in effort to remove Bleskachek as fire chiefby Brandt Williams, Minnesota Public Radio
Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak says he's disappointed and angry about having to remove fire chief Bonnie Bleskachek from the job. Earlier this week, Rybak and several other council members voted to fire her from the department's top post, and to reject a settlement offer that would allow her to remain on the force in a lesser rank.
Minneapolis, Minn. — Mayor Rybak says he's reviewed documents collected in the city's own investigation into the allegations made against Bleskachek and he says what he saw influenced his decision to call for her removal as fire chief. Rybak says it also led him to decide to reject a settlement offer that would have allowed Bleskachek to remain with the department at the reduce rank of captain.
"Because this issue is complicated enough, I have to be careful not to negotiate in the media. But it's clear that there are a lot of implications including the fact that we don't want to have a situation where we're taking someone who would have management challenges and putting them back into a management position," he said.
Bleskachek, the city's first female and first lesbian fire chief, has been sued by four firefighters. The lawsuits allege that Bleskachek unfairly denied them the right to advance because her romantic attachments with women in the department influenced her decisions.
City officials estimate that Bleskachek's legal troubles have cost the city more than $400,000. Rybak's critics have said he shares in the blame, since he hired Bleskachek in 2004.
"That I believe was the right decision at the time. It has proven to be not a good decision for the future. I brought this name forward. I nominated her. And the responsibility sits with me," Rybak said.
One of the options available to Rybak and the city is to have Bleskachek fired from the department altogether. That option is particularly troubling to Bleskachek. She told Minnesota Public Radio News the city would be basing its decision on allegations made in lawsuits that have not come to trial, and from an unfinished internal investigation.
So far, the city has settled three lawsuits against her. One of them is still awaiting approval by the City Council.
"The settlements do not mean any admission of guilt on anybody's part. I did not want to settle. Still don't. Don't want to settle any of them. Would love to have had my day in court with all of them. The city deciding to settle doesn't mean that I'm guilty," she said.
Bleskachek says the city would be hard-pressed to find a good reason to fire her. If the city does fire her, she says she would have no choice but to sue the city.
"Eighteen years of being on this job and I've never had so much as a poor performance appraisal. There's never been an issue with my ability to perform my job," said Bleskachek.
If the city decides to go that route, they may run into other complications. Bleskachek was a battalion chief before she got the top job, which makes her a civil service employee. She is also a member of a union.
Gregg Corwin, a Minneapolis attorney who represents civil service employees, says Bleskachek is entitled to challenge her termination.
"Public employees who are covered by collective bargaining agreements or by civil service or by veteran preference have due process rights to their jobs. They cannot be removed from their position, except for receiving due process. And generally that means a just cause determination," Corwin said.
Under the city's charter, Bleskachek can file a grievance with the union or request a hearing before the Civil Service Commission.
While her legal troubles have cost the city, Corwin says that doesn't necessarily mean the city will have the best case for firing her.
Corwin defended Minneapolis police officer Mike Sauro, whose legal challenges against multiple brutality lawsuits cost the city more than $1 million. In fact, Corwin says Sauro was fired twice.
"And I got him reinstated to his job twice, on a just-cause standard. So sometimes the city can settle cases for different reasons, but that doesn't mean that they're liable or that the employee did anything wrong," said Corwin.
Sauro remains on the force with the rank of lieutenant.
Mayor R.T. Rybak wouldn't say whether the city will try to fire Bleskachek from the department. But he says the threat of a lawsuit from the chief and her lawyer will not deter the city from doing the right thing.
- All Things Considered, 11/30/2006, 5:19 p.m.