Bonnie Bleskachek, who lost her job as Minneapolis fire chief in 2006 after a sex scandal and multiple lawsuits, once again wants to climb the department's career ladder.
Mayor R.T. Rybak's administration told the city when it demoted Bleskachek to captain that she would never seek promotion, would stay out of fire stations and would not supervise anyone. But the city's December 2006 news release announcing Bleskachek's settlement left out a provision -- she could apply for the job of fire investigator, a post for which she scored at the top of a recent qualifying exam.
The job involves working out of a fire station and is considered a promotion by firefighters, according to union president Mark Lakosky. While Lakosky said he's neutral on the issue, "I haven't heard anybody that didn't think she would test at the top," Lakosky said.
Bleskachek, who has worked a desk job the past five years, directed a Star Tribune inquiry Thursday to her supervisors. Chief Alex Jackson didn't return a call, but city spokesman Matt Laible said the news release about the demotion was sent out before settlement details were final. Still, he said, the city doesn't view the shift as a promotion.
Still, some feel misled by what the city said about the settlement. "It's a slap in the face to the department," veteran firefighter Tim Dziedzic said about the potential promotion, arguing Bleskachek doesn't deserve a second chance after the embarrassment she caused the department and the money she cost the city.
Bleskachek was hand-picked by Rybak to become chief in January 2005 but lasted only 14 months in the job. An independent investigator later found she had intimate relationships with three firefighters under her command, and the investigation substantiated at least 19 allegations of inappropriate conduct, retaliation against adversaries and other instances of abuse of authority. Among the findings were that she was naked in a hot tub with other department employees on three occasions and was seen making out with another employee in a fire station workout room.
The city paid to settle six lawsuits brought by five firefighters who alleged misdeeds by Bleskachek. Several suits accused her of derailing careers within the department while allowing romantic relationships to cloud her professionalism. The ordeal cost the city at least $668,500 in legal bills, pay during Bleskachek's leave and payouts for lawsuits.
In December 2006, the City Council approved a settlement that removed Bleskachek as chief without severance pay. The vote was 8-5, with the minority wanting to fire her outright. At the time, Rybak spoke of visiting a fire station and cringing as firefighters told how friends and relatives joked about the department where they worked. Bleskachek was required to issue a public apology under the settlement.
"I think there's a lot of information not given to the public," said Kristina Lemon, who twice sued the city, alleging harassment, discrimination and retaliation under Bleskachek. Lemon said the city has an obligation to protect its employees. "It's really a matter of integrity for the city," she said.
But even Lemon, who is leaving the department due to a neck injury, concedes Bleskachek is "exceptionally qualified." Since Bleskachek's demotion, she's worked on the fire payroll either in the fire chief's office or the Department of Regulatory Services on emergency preparedness matters.
The investigator job is attractive, in part, because it can swell a paycheck. One person promoted to investigator several years ago saw a $14,000 annual increase from her previous pay as captain. A prime reason is the opportunity for overtime. There's one investigator per shift, and investigating a fire and writing a report often extends beyond the end of a shift.
According to city data, four of the department's top 14 overtime earners between 2007 and 2010 were investigators. Bleskachek's pay fell by almost $27,000 annually in the year after she was demoted from chief to captain.
Lemon called it "naive to think that [Bleskachek] would not be supervising" firefighters as an investigator. Lakosky agreed that investigators issue orders to fire crews as part of their investigations.
Bleskachek's settlement stipulates that "the city shall not take further adverse employment actions against Bleskachek based on her alleged conduct" prior to the settlement.
Laible said that the 2006 news release accurately described that Bleskachek's demotion kept her out of a fire station and without supervisory duties. "Neither the news release nor the agreement states that she must remain in that position indefinitely [or permanently]," he said.
Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438