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Minneapolis’ female fire chief faces allegations

Bonnie Bleskachek, Minneapolis’ first female fire chief and the only openly gay fire chief of a major U.S. city, knows what discrimination feels like. But now, two years after ascending to the top job, Bleskachek is the one who stands accused of harassing women.
Minneapolis Fire Chief Bonnie Bleskachek poses in her City Hall office in a Nov. 22, 2005 file photo.Jim Mone / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Bonnie Bleskachek knows what discrimination feels like.

After she joined the Minneapolis Fire Department years ago, male firefighters would leave the room whenever she walked in, a union official hurled an anti-gay slur at her because she is a lesbian, and a male comrade hit her in the head with a soda can, according to her lawyer.

Bleskachek endured, becoming Minneapolis’ first female fire chief and the only openly gay fire chief of a major U.S. city.

But now, two years after ascending to the top job, Bleskachek is the one who stands accused of harassing women.

The 43-year-old chief is on leave as the city conducts an internal investigation amid lawsuits from three female firefighters who allege various acts of discrimination and sexual harassment. Also, a city investigation found evidence that the department gave preferential treatment to lesbians or those who socialize with them.

“It’s really kind of unfortunate because of her position and her minority status,” said Theresa Glomb, a professor of human resources and industrial relations at the University of Minnesota. “I imagine, even if found to be false, it could be very difficult for her to regain the respect that her achievement deserves.”

Bleskachek declined to be interviewed for this story. Her attorney, Jerry Burg, disputed the allegations.

10 years of allegations
The lawsuits paint a picture of a woman who let her love life influence her personnel decisions in this city of about 390,000.

In one lawsuit, firefighter Kristina Lemon claims that Bleskachek pursued a sexual relationship with her, and that when Lemon rebuffed her, Bleskachek denied her training and advancement opportunities. Bleskachek denies the allegations, which span a 10-year period, in which Bleskachek moved up the ranks from captain to chief.

The two other lawsuits center on a test for promotion to battalion chief that was suspended and eventually canceled.

One of the plaintiffs, Bleskachek’s former partner Jennifer Cornell, claims Bleskachek suspended the test after Cornell passed the exam but Bleskachek’s current girlfriend did not. Cornell also claims she was denied other training opportunities that could have led to higher pay.

Bleskachek denies the decisions were personal. In court documents, Burg said the decision to deny training was made by Cornell’s immediate supervisor. In addition, Burg said, the test was found to be flawed after only two people passed it, and several administrators, not just Bleskachek, were involved in the decision to cancel it.

“It boggles my mind that the public jumps to the conclusion that these decisions are motivated by the desire to have sex with someone who rebuffs them” or because of past romantic relationships, Burg said.

Under a settlement that was reached last week and awaits City Council approval, both plaintiffs in the dispute over the exam will be promoted to battalion chief, said their attorney, John Klassen.

An impressive career
In an interview, Lemon said she was optimistic at first to see a female and a lesbian appointed chief.

“But it is disheartening to know that we don’t get better, we don’t learn,” she said. “Even after we’ve gone through hardships, that we can turn around and perpetrate the same behavior ... it’s a sad thing.”

In 1989, Bleskachek became the 10th woman to join the Minneapolis department, which had hired its first female firefighter just three years earlier. She co-founded a group that helps women train for the firefighting test, and she helped get the city to change one part of the grueling physical test so it more accurately reflected the tasks required on the job.

As of March, 17 percent of the city’s 450 firefighters were women — the highest percentage among urban fire departments in the nation, according to Women in the Fire Service.

“She put a lot of time and effort into making this a job that’s available for women,” said Tom Thornberg, president of the Minneapolis firefighters union.

Bleskachek was appointed chief in 2004 by Mayor R.T. Rybak. Rybak’s spokesman said the mayor had no comment on the dispute.

'Frightening' implications for women
Burg said Bleskachek did her job well and worked to change the perception of a firehouse as a boys’ club. He said the allegations are “a terrible negative.”

“I think it feeds into the bias that lesbians are masculine and men behave like pigs, therefore lesbians are pigs,” the lawyer said. “The implications of this for women, I think that they are frightening.”

Thornberg, the union president, said morale among the rank-and-file is pretty good, considering the publicity surrounding the chief.

“When it gets into the press, the picture is painted that everyone is in the firehouse having sex and doing all of these things. Well, that’s not the case,” he said.

“We’re all professionals. We’re trained to do our job. ... Everybody would just like to see this over so that we can move on, and get our good name back and continue to do what we do.”