City officials vote to remove fire chief

Several weeks after a fourth firefighter filed a lawsuit against Minneapolis Fire Chief Bonnie Bleskachek, members of the City Council began the process of removing the embattled leader from her position.

Mayor R.T. Rybak publicly called for Bleskachek's removal Nov. 27 and the city's Executive Committee approved his recommendation at a meeting the following day. The majority of the Executive Committee's meeting was closed while members evaluated the performance of Bleskachek. The City Council's Public Safety and Regulatory Services Committee was scheduled to examine the issue at its Nov. 30 meeting, after this issue of the Southwest Journal went to press. From there, the full City Council was expected to vote on the matter at its Dec. 1 meeting.

In a Nov. 22 letter to members of the Executive Committee, Rybak said he has been concerned about Bleskachek's management of the Fire Department for more than a year. Despite meetings city officials had with Bleskachek and her legal representation to discuss these concerns, Rybak said he is &#8220not confident that Ms. Bleskachek can lead the Fire Department in a way that best positions the department to protect the citizens of Minneapolis.”

Rybak's letter notes that Bleskachek will remain eligible for a severance package.

&#8220Ms. Bleskachek is aware of my recommendation and has agreed not to contest any action by the Executive Committee to remove her from the appointed position of fire chief,” Rybak said.

Bleskachek, the first openly gay fire chief of a major U.S. city, has been on paid administrative leave since March while the city investigates accusations that she let her personal life interfere with work decisions and used her position to hinder the careers of other firefighters. She has been the target of lawsuits by three lesbian firefighters and one heterosexual man in the department that allege various acts of discrimination or harassment.

The city has paid Bleskachek an estimated $90,000 in salary and benefits since she was put on paid leave, according to city spokesperson Matt Laible. As of early October - the most recent data available - the city has paid $220,580 to the law firm conducting the internal investigation. The city is also paying for the Bleskachek's attorney, and those fees totaled $7,125 as of early October.

The city has also paid a total of $94,000 to settle two of the lawsuits brought against Bleskachek.

All of these costs total more than $410,000.

Rybak nominated Bleskachek as fire chief in 2004 and she took over the reigns of the department in January 2005. Since Bleskachek was put on paid leave, the Fire Department has been led by James Clack, a 20-year veteran of the Minneapolis Fire Department who has spent the last two years as one of two assistant chiefs.