TV & Radio
Minneapolis Likely to Oust Lesbian Fire Chief
By Kari Lydersen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 5, 2006; A03
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.
"Both of those women had a lot to lose by suing the city and would only have done it if it was absolutely necessary," said John A. Klassen, the attorney for Cornell, Mullen and Elondo Wright, 39, a black male firefighter who recently filed a civil rights lawsuit against Bleskachek, Maresca and the city.
Wright's lawsuit alleges that he was harassed after he was transferred to an all-female fire company overseen by Maresca in 2002. He says Maresca forced him to train long hours late into the night while other firefighters were relaxing, and he alleges that from 1999 to 2005, women supervisors gave him 86 informal disciplinary write-ups, while four male supervisors gave him a total of four. Bleskachek was Maresca's supervisor at the time.
"We're battling the public perception that where there's smoke there's fire," said Bleskachek's attorney, Jerry Burg. "But Bonnie was really a small player in the story of Elondo Wright."
The Minneapolis Fire Department had no women firefighters until 1986, though it was under a federal consent decree to increase diversity. When Bleskachek joined in 1989, she said women faced constant harassment by men.
She is credited with aggressively recruiting women and co-founding the Minnesota Women Fire Fighters Association, which helps women prepare for the entrance test. The national group Women in the Fire Service says 70 of the 447 Minneapolis firefighters are female, the highest percentage of any major department in the country.
Even Bleskachek's critics admire her firefighting and management skills.
"She's a very bright, competent individual who train-wrecked her career by letting personal relationships and abuse of her office cloud what could have been an enormously promising career," Klassen said.
Tom Thornberg, president of Minneapolis Fire Fighters Local 82, said union members are grateful to Bleskachek for convincing the city to establish minimum staffing levels, which it had never had.
National and local gay rights groups declined to comment on the situation but said Minneapolis is considered a leader in gay rights. Klassen says pride in this reputation backfired.
"The city's desire to hold itself out as a diverse, accepting community plays a role in this whole tragedy," he said. "The mayor didn't really look at his candidate well enough to see if she could handle it."
The New York Times
December 5, 2006
Pioneering Fire Chief Fights for Her Job Amid Lawsuits
By SUSAN SAULNY
CHICAGO, Dec. 4 — Two years ago, when Bonnie Bleskachek was named fire chief in Minneapolis, it made news far beyond Minnesota because she was the first openly lesbian firefighter to achieve that rank in the professional fire service of a major city.
Hailed as a pioneer, Chief Bleskachek was showered with praise for her years of hard work. Perhaps no one was more pleased with the appointment than Mayor R. T. Rybak, a supporter of gay rights who made the promotion a media event.
But last Wednesday, it became clear that everything had changed. Citing a lack of confidence in Chief Bleskachek’s management style, Mr. Rybak asked the City Council to fire her.
The move was made after suits were filed against the city and Chief Bleskachek that accused her of playing sexual politics, retaliating against a former partner, acting as a lustful predator and showing bias against at least one heterosexual male firefighter.
“All of that information has been presented to us in great detail,” Mr. Rybak said. “I have to be honest. I very much wanted Bonnie Bleskachek to succeed.”
Chief Bleskachek says that she did succeed and that is precisely why she is entangled in such a case.
“Being an out lesbian, which the mayor really wanted to push, the first openly lesbian fire chief, made me an easy target,” she said. “The sharks smelled blood in the water.”
John A. Klassen, an employment lawyer representing the plaintiffs in three of the four suits against Chief Bleskachek, rejected that argument.
“None of these cases are antilesbian,” Mr. Klassen said. “These cases are about discrimination.”
He added, “It’s unfortunate that someone who could have been a beacon” for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people “was engaging in what everybody views as stereotypically male harassment behaviors.”
The suits, including one by a former partner of Chief Bleskachek, depict a firehouse culture where lesbians and their allies enjoyed favors and people who crossed them risked punishment.
Chief Bleskachek said the complaints were nonsense, calculated to prey on some of the public’s worst fears about gay men and lesbians in power. Of her accusers, she said, “They knew it would be tantalizing and salacious and that the City Council would run, turn tail and run the other way.”
The city has settled or is in the process of settling three suits for modest sums. That, Chief Bleskachek, said, angered her most of all.
“I wanted to have my day in court, to be deposed, to force these people to produce some proof,” she said. “It’s a devastating blow to my career, my reputation, my everything.”
The Minneapolis Fire Department had made strides in dismantling barriers to women and minorities, being held up as a model. It was widely considered one of the best places in the country to work as a firefighter, particularly for women.
The national average for women in firefighting agencies is 2.5 percent; in Minneapolis, 71 of 435 members, or 16 percent, of the Fire Department are women.
Last year, the department was first in the country for the number of women in the ranks, according to Women in the Fire Service, an advocacy group in Madison, Wis.
It was not always that way. In the late 1970s, the department was sued over a lack of diversity. It remained under federal oversight until 2000, when it was clear that a lack of diversity was no longer a problem.
Some credit goes to Chief Bleskachek, 43 supporters have said. In 1996, she was a co-founder of the Minnesota Women’s Firefighter Association, helping prepare women for firefighting careers and offering professional development to women who sought leadership posts.
Minneapolis has not decided whether the department still has a place for Chief Bleskachek, but she said she wanted to be part of it.
“I’ve worked too hard for years,” she said. “If I’m such a terrible manager, if I’m such a bad leader, where are the red flags in my past? The only thing I can come up with is that this is a whole lot of homophobia and sexism.”
A plaintiff, Firefighter Jennifer Cornell, is a former partner of Chief Bleskachek. They share custody of the chief’s two children.
Firefighter Cornell said in court papers that Chief Bleskachek, out of vengeance and pride, nullified the results of a test for promotion to battalion chief on which she performed well because Chief Bleskachek’s current partner, also a firefighter, did not pass.
Another plaintiff, Firefighter Kathleen Mullen, had been a friend of Chief Bleskachek for years, until the chief started dating Capt. Mary Maresca, who used to go out with Firefighter Mullen.
Firefighter Mullen passed the first part of the battalion chief’s test, only to have the remainder of the test canceled. She said the results were thrown out to prevent her promotion and in retaliation for not approving of Chief Bleskachek’s current relationship.
Chief Bleskachek said that a panel of city officials had found some test questions flawed and that she had stopped the entire test.
The two cases were settled. Firefighter Cornell had sought $300,000. She received $69,000 and a guaranteed promotion. Firefighter Mullen received a backdated promotion and $29,000.
After the first two suits were filed, a third firefighter, Kristina Lemon, filed a legal complaint stating that 10 years ago Chief Bleskachek pursued an unwanted romantic relationship with her. After being spurned, Firefighter Lemon said, Chief Bleskachek used her increasing power over the years to penalize her.
In the complaint, Firefighter Lemon described a loud argument when Chief Bleskachek demanded that she admit romantic feelings. At another time, Firefighter Lemon said in the complaint, Chief Bleskachek told her that she had “sexual dreams” about her.
“The defense for that is pretty simple,” said Jerry Burg, a lawyer for Chief Bleskachek. “It didn’t happen. These two people haven’t talked in 10 years, and Kristina is making it up.”
Firefighter Lemon’s case is in the final stages of settlement, said her lawyer, R. Daniel Rasmus. He would not discuss the terms.
A fourth suit was filed against Chief Bleskachek and her current partner, Captain Maresca, by Firefighter Elondo J. Wright, who says he suffered discrimination because he is not gay and not a woman. The federal case is in the early stages.
In his complaint, Firefighter Wright said that he was called a home wrecker after joining an all-female crew headed by Captain Maresca and that he was denied opportunities for advancement. He also said he saw the women “behaving in a physically inappropriate manner” while on duty at the firehouse, where they had adjoining rooms.
Captain Maresca declined to comment.
Amid the accusations less than a year after her reappointment to a second term, Chief Bleskachek said her head was spinning.
“It’s been brutal,” she said. “I still feel like I’m recovering from shock.”
Lucy Quinlivan contributed reporting from Minneapolis.