Embattled Minneapolis Fire Chief Alex Jackson announced Wednesday that he's retiring next month, and Mayor R.T. Rybak immediately nominated one of the department's former assistant chiefs as his successor.
Jackson's retirement ends a 30-year career that culminated in 2008 when he became the first black fire chief. In a statement Wednesday, he called the post "one of my greatest achievements and honors."
Yet the City Council has repeatedly criticized Jackson over his management of the department, most recently ballooning overtime costs incurred by firefighters.
Rybak nominated John Fruetel to follow Jackson in a job that last year paid more than $122,000. Fruetel retired from the force in 2010 and has been drawing a fire pension while working for the city as its emergency preparedness training manager.
Neither Jackson nor Fruetel responded to phone calls Wednesday. While Rybak said in a statement that he was "disappointed" in Jackson's decision to retire, some of the chief's supporters believe he was forced out.
"I had a conversation with Alex Jackson two days ago and clearly I do not buy the retirement [story]," said community activist Ron Edwards, who served on a court oversight committee for the department's integration.
Jackson was among the firefighter hires who helped diversify a department that had resisted that for decades. In 2008, Rybak picked Jackson from among three finalists -- Fruetel among them -- to lead the department.
Recently, reports of $1 million in firefighter overtime costs caused some on the council to question Jackson's management. He also has faced criticism over his handling of duties that had been shifted to the department, such as fire safety inspections. Supervision of those inspections was shifted away from Jackson after an April 2010 blaze in an uninspected apartment building killed six people.
The city is awaiting the results of an outside review of the department that could lead to changes in manning or scheduling. It is also defending itself and Jackson against a lawsuit brought by another finalist for the 2009 chief opening, Jean Kidd, who alleged that Jackson demoted her in retaliation for her criticism of his leadership.
Jackson's term expired along with those of several other department heads at the end of the year, and there was speculation whether Rybak would ask the council to grant him another two-year term. Rybak said only that he planned to evaluate those appointments after the year started.
The mayor's spokesman, John Stiles, said the mayor put no pressure on the chief to retire. But some greeted that with skepticism.
"I personally don't know if he's retiring because he wants to or because he saw the writing on the wall," firefighters union President Mark Lakosky said.
Lakosky said that Jackson fell short in advocating for the department, allowing staffing of firefighters to drop and some rigs to run with three-person crews that endanger firefighter safety.
Council Member Don Samuels, who chairs the city's public safety committee, called the retirement "unfortunate." He said Jackson "rose to the occasion" during tough times for the department: tight budgets, union skirmishes, low morale. "That all kind of conspired to make it very, very difficult for him," Samuels said. "And I'm suspecting it is that that is making him consider a premature exit."
Jackson also reopened old wounds by naming former Chief Bonnie Bleskachek from a field of applicants to an arson investigator job. Firefighters thought she was sidelined to a desk job under a 2006 settlement resulting from sexual harassment charges.