Minneapolis Likely to Oust Lesbian Fire Chief

By Kari Lydersen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 5, 2006

Two years ago, Minneapolis, known for its civic diversity and tolerance, made national headlines for naming Bonnie Bleskachek the first openly lesbian fire chief of a major U.S. city.

Now city officials are cringing in the face of four lawsuits filed against her.

The city has settled two lawsuits with women firefighters who allege that sexual favoritism on Bleskachek's part stunted their careers in the department. A sexual harassment suit from a third female firefighter and a gender discrimination claim from a male employee are pending.

Last week, city officials were briefed on an investigation being conducted by a local law firm into Bleskachek's performance as chief. After the briefing, Mayor R.T. Rybak announced that a proposed deal that would have given Bleskachek severance pay and demoted her within the department is off the table. Instead, the city may move to fire her from the force, pending the completion of the investigation.

"The only thing decided is a broad consensus from the mayor and City Council that she be removed from the fire chief position," said Rybak's spokesman, Jeremy Hanson.

Bleskachek, 43, is furious that the city has settled the lawsuits rather than taking them to trial, where she could have told her side of the story.

"They have no evidence at all; this is all based on conjecture and hurt feelings," she said, in her home in a pleasant, modest south Minneapolis neighborhood.

There is no doubt the Fire Department is rife with personal dramas and romantic entanglements. One of the lawsuits against Bleskachek was filed by Jennifer Cornell, 35, the chief's ex-partner of six years, who shares custody of their two children. Another suit was brought by Kathleen Mullen, 43, a longtime friend who had dated Bleskachek's current girlfriend.

A third complaint is from a woman who says Bleskachek flirted with her and then punished her professionally after she declined the advances. Bleskachek counters that the firefighter, Kristina Lemon, was the one who professed attraction to her a decade ago and that she became angry when Bleskachek disciplined her last year for a physical altercation with another firefighter in a burning building.

In February, Cornell and Mullen were the only ones to pass the first portion of a test to promote two employees to battalion chief. Shortly afterward, Bleskachek and several other department officials scrapped the test and left the two positions vacant. Mullen and Cornell charge that the move thwarted their careers and was taken because Bleskachek's current partner, Mary Maresca, had failed the test.

Bleskachek said that the test had been hastily prepared and that officials were shocked that even after a preparatory college class, only two out of 13 firefighters passed. "The test was flawed," she said. "There were questions with more than one answer and ones that were poorly written."

In September, the city settled with Cornell for $65,000 and Mullen for $29,000. Mullen was retroactively promoted to battalion chief, and Cornell was promised a promotion within two years.

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