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Panel calls for firing openly lesbian fire chief in Minneapolis

City leaders reject resignation deal

MINNEAPOLIS -- A city panel recommended yesterday that officials fire Bonnie Bleskachek, the nation's first openly lesbian big-city fire chief, following lawsuits filed by firefighters accusing her of harassment and discrimination.

Bleskachek had agreed to step down, but the city's executive council unanimously rejected a negotiated deal after a closed-door meeting.

"She was pretty stunned ," said Bleskachek's lawyer, Jerry Burg.

Mayor R. T. Rybak had 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. Neither Rybak nor City Council members would immediately explain why the deal was blocked.

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 this month a male firefighter brought a lawsuit alleging he was denied advancement because he is male and not gay.

A city investigation is still underway . 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 yesterday and unavailable for comment on the severance agreement. She has denied wrongdoing in the past.

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. The agreement, Burg said, included a cash payment of $30,000 to $40,000 -- the difference in annual pay between a chief and captain.

Rybak aide Jeremy Hanson said before the panel's meeting 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.

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