Bonnie Bleskachek, the nation’s first openly lesbian big-city fire chief, has agreed to step down in the wake of firefighter lawsuits accusing her of harassment and discrimination, her attorney and the mayor said.
Mayor R.T. Rybak announced the agreement in a letter to the city’s executive council in which he wrote that he no longer had confidence in Bleskachek as chief. The executive council was to discuss the agreement Tuesday, and the full City Council could consider it as early as Friday.
Bleskachek, 43, was hailed as a trailblazer when she was promoted to the top job two years ago, but her tenure has been troubled.
Three female firefighters have sued, alleging various acts of discrimination and sexual harassment. Two of the lawsuits were settled, but earlier this month, a male firefighter brought another lawsuit alleging he was denied advancement because he is male and not gay.
A city investigation is still under way. This summer, a separate investigation by the city’s Department of Civil Rights into a 2003 complaint by a male firefighter — brought when Bleskachek was a battalion chief — found it “likely” that the department gave preferential treatment to lesbians or those who socialized with them.
Bleskachek was ill with the flu Tuesday and unavailable for comment on the severance agreement. She has denied wrongdoing in the past.
A reassignment and demotion
Her attorney, Jerry Burg, said the chief’s employment agreement calls for her to be reassigned as battalion chief. She would then request a demotion to captain, he said.
Burg accused Rybak of spinning the negotiated agreement “as if he’s addressing an employee problem” that remains unproven, but he acknowledged that Bleskachek was ready to step down.
“That is something she has wanted for a lot longer than she has been talking about in public,” Burg said. “It’s been clear for a long time that the job of chief takes energy from her life that she no longer wanted to give it, all things considered.”
Rybak aide Jeremy Hanson said it was not a “certainty” that Bleskachek would remain with the department.
The city has spent more than $410,000 on the investigation, legal settlements and compensation of Bleskachek during her paid leave, which began March 22.