Bleskachek out as Minneapolis fire chiefby Brandt Williams, Minnesota Public Radio
The Minneapolis City Council has voted to remove Bonnie Bleskachek as fire chief and to demote her without severance pay. The agreement allows Bleskachek to remain in the department, but in a non-supervisory position. However, several councilmembers opposed the agreement because they wanted her fired from the department outright. They argued that the results of a city investigation show a pattern of conduct by Bleskachek that could expose the city to future lawsuits. Bleskachek's attorney says the former chief accepts the terms of the settlement. But she disputes some of the findings of the investigation.
Minneapolis, Minn. — Former fire chief Bonnie Bleskachek will return to the department as a staff captain, but she will not directly supervise other firefighters and she will not be allowed to respond to emergency calls. She will take a pay cut of over $40,000, but as a captain will have a salary of over $60,000 a year.
Bleskachek has agreed not to contest the terms of the agreement.
It has taken members of the City Council, the mayor and city attorneys nearly a month to resolve the question over what to do with Bleskachek - the city's first female and first lesbian fire chief. It appears that the sticking point involved whether to allow Bleskachek to remain on the department in some capacity, or to fire her outright.
Mayor R.T. Rybak says the city and the fire department are better off by keeping Bleskachek on in a limited capacity, because it prevents additional legal action.
"Our fire department and the entire community deserve closure on this matter and the certainty of swift punishment over the uncertainty of a lurid courtroom drama that could end in her returning at a management position and a mixed message is not a risk I am willing to face," he said.
Bleskachek was prepared to take legal action to contest complete dismissal from the department. As a civil service employee and union member she's entitled to file a grievance with the union or request a hearing before the Civil Service Commission.
Rybak and other members of the Council say they don't want to risk going through a process that could result in a determination that the city would be powerless to change.
But other council members, like Robert Lilligren argued the risk was worth taking.
"Based on the summary conclusion of this investigation, I believe that there is a pattern of behavior here that is likely to continue and one that I do not think that we should welcome in the employs of the city of Minneapolis," he said.
The summary of the investigation lists several substantiated allegations of inappropriate sexual behavior and instances where Bleskachek intimidated subordinates.
Here are some of the allegations. Each is followed by a response by Bleskachek's attorney, Jerry Burg.
In 2005 Chief Bleskachek was seen making out with another employee on the floor of the workout room at a fire station.
"Not true," says Burg
On three separate occasions Chief Bleskachek was naked in a hot tub at a private party in front of other fire department employees.
"I don't believe that it was true and I believe that the hot tub party that they're talking about occurred long before she was chief," he says.
Another allegation states that Chief Bleskachek was dancing in a sexually suggestive way at a public club with a young firefighter who was reportedly uncomfortable with the chief's conduct.
"I think dancing in a sexually suggestive manner is in the eye of the beholder," Burg says. "My children cringe when they see me dance. I don't believe that she's ever acknowledged that that occurred."
There are other allegations that on two occasions Bleskachek improperly touched the leg and foot of another female firefighter. The investigators also accuse Bleskachek of making several miss-statements and mischaracterizations, and "had a pattern of altering the context of her comments to the investigator."
Attorney Jerry Burg disagrees with that characterization. But he says there are a few things that Bleskachek admitted to, such as having an affair with a female firefighter who was married. However Burg says that occurred before Bleskachek was appointed chief.
"I know what things she's admitted. I know what things people guessed about. I know the degree of rumor and innuendo in it. And I know there is a lot of rumor and innuendo that formed the basis of the findings or recommendations."
Though this chapter of the drama between Bonnie Bleskachek and the city has reached a conclusion, legal fights remain. Three of five lawsuits against Bleskachek have yet to be resolved. A tentative settlement of one suit is on the table, however the council has not approved it.
In the meantime, the City Council is looking for ways to prevent episodes such as this from from reoccuring. Council members voted to direct the City Coordinator's office to analyze policies that govern how department heads are selected, evaluated and disciplined.
- All Things Considered, 12/22/2006, 5:20 p.m.