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Minneapolis Fire Chief Alex Jackson testified before the City Council about his department's overtime budget.

Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

Minneapolis City Council weighs another term for fire chief

  • Article by: STEVE BRANDT
  • Star Tribune
  • December 10, 2011 - 9:56 PM

The selection of Alex Jackson in 2008 to be Minneapolis fire chief was a point of pride among the city's black firefighters, especially those who remembered when blacks couldn't get hired or promoted in the department.

But the chief has spent much of his time defending his leadership before the City Council, which could decide early in 2012 whether he'll get two more years.

Council President Barbara Johnson said she hasn't counted noses yet.

"I would say he's under the microscope just because of the financial issues in particular," she said.

Jackson has been grilled repeatedly by council committees over the past six weeks about the department's ballooning overtime bill.

Jackson has said that he expects the mayor to nominate him again but hasn't commented further. The firefighters' union president estimates that Jackson has a 50-50 chance of reappointment. Last week, Mayor R.T. Rybak declined to say whether he would renominate Jackson, saying he'll focus on department heads early next year.

The Fire Department and Jackson have struggled to rein in a $1 million overtime bill, something firefighters argue is caused by trying to staff the same number of rigs and fire stations with fewer firefighters. But council critics argue Jackson has been slow to take on overtime costs, unlike Police Chief Tim Dolan.

Council members lashed out at the department after learning about a higher use of sick days by fire personnel on weekends and in summer months -- evidence of costly malingering by some firefighters.

Jackson also took flak for his effort to bolster department finances by using firefighters, instead of outside contractors, to board up vacant buildings. Instead of earning money for the department, the work has lost more than $300,000.

Not all the criticism is focused on money. The department's fire-safety inspections came under scrutiny after an April 2010 blaze in an uninspected Lake Street apartment building killed six people. Management of fire inspections was shifted away from Jackson's authority to another department. At the time, a black firefighters group charged that the city never would have done that if the chief had been white.

When council members quiz him about issues, Jackson often seems to lack ready answers.

"If I make the list of all the things that I'm really disappointed in, it's a pretty long list," Johnson told Jackson earlier this year, citing a list of instances where the department came unprepared before the council.

But last week Johnson said Jackson has improved.

"I have to say that I was impressed with his reaction to my concerns. He did some shakeup in his upper management ... which I appreciate. I think he is trying to make some of the relationships happen that need to happen."

Jackson has turned to an outside consultant to review staffing and other issues. An initial report is due soon.

So far, no council members who sit on the committee overseeing public safety said outright that they're ready to vote against him.

"It'll be a tough vote," said Council Member Meg Tuthill. Although the overtime bill is "huge" for her, she said another issue is Jackson's repeated trips before council committees without the information they seek.

But council public safety chairman Don Samuels said Jackson was appointed at a time of low morale and tightening budgets. "I think he's done a good job handling all of those difficulties," Samuels said.

First hired as a Minneapolis firefighter in 1980, Jackson is the third fire chief Rybak has appointed. His first choice, Bonnie Bleskachek, proved disastrous, and she agreed to step down in 2006 after a sex scandal and multiple firefighter lawsuits alleging harassment or retaliation. Her successor, James Clack, performed well enough to be hired away by Baltimore.

Council Member Betsy Hodges said Jackson was a "firefighter's firefighter" when appointed. One fire motor operator, Tim Dziedzic, was enthusiastic in 2008 when Rybak nominated Jackson, but his ardor has cooled. He and others say they wish Jackson would advocate more effectively for department staffing. "There's just no morale around the fire station," he said.

Community activist Ron Edwards has observed fire chiefs for decades as part of a group that oversaw court-ordered hiring changes to promote racial diversity. "I think he's done his job extremely well, especially during these tough economic times," Edwards said. "He has to respond to a lot of masters."

Firefighters union President Mark Lakosky said he likes Jackson but thinks his chances of reappointment are 50-50. "I can't believe they're happy with certain performances," he said about Jackson's appearances before the council. "It's painful for me sometimes."

Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438

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