Rocco Forte, who rose from firefighter to Minneapolis City Hall's master of disaster, left the city's payroll Thursday after 36 years with praise for his accomplishments and the cloud of a pending investigation.

Forte headed the city's emergency response during the Interstate 35W bridge collapse in 2007, earning national recognition and speaking gigs as far as China and Australia after the Interstate 35W bridge collapse. He is also credited with diversifying the workforce of the Minneapolis Fire Department with women and minorities.

When Mayor R.T. Rybak and City Council President Barbara Johnson announced May 19 that Forte would leave July 1, they praised his work as fire chief and as the city's top regulator. Forte, 58, said Thursday that he retired because of dissatisfaction with the regulatory side of his job, and that he would work as a emergency management consultant.

Yet his abrupt move puzzled some who worked for Forte. It occurred during an two-week absence in which Forte abruptly cleared his packed appointment calendar. City human resources officials say a complaint against Forte prompted city officials to hire an outside investigator for a probe that's continuing.

Pamela French, the city's human resources director, said the city can't disclose the nature of an open investigation. Forte said on Thursday that he was unaware of any complaints against him, nor did it factor into his decision to retire.

Neither Rybak nor Johnson responded to requests this week to comment on Forte's departure. Council Member Don Samuels said the city's Regulatory Department was a "paper tiger" until Forte took over.

"I'm very disappointed" that Forte is leaving, Samuels said. "I think his skill set was so high that he would be in demand."

A North Side native, Navy veteran and onetime boxer, Forte alternately won plaudits in his city career as a manager and advocate for diversity, and criticism for personnel decisions that led to costly lawsuits and settlements.

Forte was named the outstanding manager in his field in 2010 by a national peer group of urban security officials. They noted his development of a five-year emergency preparedness plan that enabled the city's coordinated response to the Aug. 1, 2007, bridge collapse.

In his six years as fire chief, Forte boosted the hiring and promotion of minority firefighters after years of resistance from the department. But he left plenty of bitterness behind.

He antagonized firefighters by quickly offering to lay off 32 firefighters in the face of a 2003 budget cut. He said he made that offer to avoid even more layoffs, and was able to rehire all the firefighters in five months by adding apartment licensing inspections to the department's duties.

Yet in 2010, years after Forte left the department, the fire department's inspections came under criticism after a deadly fire in an apartment building that inspectors failed to visit for 16 years.

When Forte left the fire chief's job, his replacement, Bonnie Bleskachek, had a short and stormy tenure after a sex scandal led to a series of costly lawsuits. Forte said on Thursday that she was one of three internal candidates he recommended.

According to some firefighters, Forte was a take-no-prisoners boss who tried to derail the careers of those who disagreed with him. One of them was now retired fire Capt. Kathy Davison, who questioned Forte at community meetings over the public safety impacts of cutting ladder trucks. She sued Forte and the city when he failed to promote her to fire investigator during three vacancies, despite her top score on tests. The city settled with her for $65,000 and her promotion.

"Rocco, due to his management style, has a trail of lawsuits behind him," Davison said.

Legal troubles followed Forte when he was named assistant city coordinator for regulatory services and emergency preparedness. He set out to clean house in the department, but it proved costly when he tried to fire four managers with civil service protection and replace them with workers he could fire at will. The city agreed to settle that lawsuit for $550,000.

Asked about those legal disputes, Forte said, "There are differences of opinions and when I made decisions, I made the best ones that I could and everyone did not always agree with me." 612-673-4438 • 612-673-4224