A Hunk of Burning Love

Minneapolis Fire Chief Bonnie Bleskachek had a way with the ladies--as firefighter Kristina Lemon claims she learned the hard way

In the winter of 1996, Kristina Lemon agreed to cover a few  shift hours for a fellow firefighter assigned to Station 11 in the Marcy Holmes neighborhood of Minneapolis. At the time Lemon was a rookie firefighter, still learning the ropes of the job. As Lemon recalls the day, she was shoveling snow when the captain in charge, Bonnie Bleskachek, approached her.

Lemon had met Bleskachek previously, but was mostly familiar with her through reputation. One of the first female firefighters hired by the city, Bleskachek had risen quickly through the ranks, earning a promotion to captain after just five years on the job. She had also recently helped to found the Minnesota Women Fire Fighters Association (MWFFA), a group dedicated to developing opportunities for females in what had historically been a male-dominated profession. In short, she was a role model for fledgling firefighters like Lemon.

But the exchange that took place that day would leave Lemon flummoxed. "She got the opportunity to be alone with me," Lemon recalls, "and made these comments that she had a sexual dream about me and referenced that we were naked." The rookie says that she responded by telling Bleskachek that she wasn't interested in a sexual relationship. Shortly after this uncomfortable interaction, Lemon was relieved from duty.

Kris Drake

"I was pretty shocked," she says. "I'd never been put in a position like that, from men or women, on the job. It made my skin crawl."

That brief encounter, Lemon claims, launched a decade of sexual harassment and discrimination by Bleskachek and the Minneapolis Fire Department. As Bleskachek's power within the department

The rookie says that she responded by telling Bleskachek that she wasn't interested in a sexual relationship. Shortly after this uncomfortable interaction, Lemon was relieved from duty for the day.

"I was pretty shocked," she says. "I'd never been put in a position like that, from men or women, on the job. It made my skin crawl."

That brief encounter, Lemon claims, launched a decade of sexual harassment and discrimination by Bleskachek and the Minneapolis Fire Department. As Bleskachek's power within the department grew over the years, Lemon claims she saw her own career ambitions thwarted. Bleskachek's pioneering rise through the fire department culminated in her June 2004 appointment as the city's first female and first openly gay fire chief.

Last month, Lemon filed a civil lawsuit against Bleskachek and the city of Minneapolis in Hennepin County District Court, alleging that she's been illegally discriminated against. Lemon's claim is just one of three lawsuits brought against Bleskachek and the city in recent months by current employees of the fire department. Two other firefighters—Jennifer Cornell, a former domestic partner of Bleskachek's, and Kathleen Mullen—have also filed claims in U.S. District Court alleging discriminatory behavior by the chief. In addition, rumors that a fourth lawsuit may soon be filed against the chief by a female firefighter have been circulating through the department for weeks. On March 22, at her own behest, Bleskachek was placed on paid leave by the city pending an investigation.

Taken together, the lawsuits depict a fire department in which Bleskachek's rise to the top was punctuated by episodes involving sex, claims of favoritism or intimidation, and situations in which social interactions seemed to count more than job performance did. The civil complaints lay out a soap opera of sexual liaisons and angry reprisals. In short, if the allegations are to be believed, a fire department that was once notoriously an old white boys' club had been transformed into a similarly nepotistic old girls' club.

"It's embarrassing that we women would get ourselves in this position," says Lemon. "Bonnie had huge responsibility moving up the ranks the way she did. She's really caused a black eye for women."

I n November of last year, Bonnie Bles- kachek announced that the fire department would be hiring two new battalion chiefs. Three months later, 13 candidates took the first portion of a test to determine who was qualified for the open positions.

Initially only two candidates passed the test, Jennifer Cornell and Kathleen Mullen. Because of the extremely low passage rate, the department undertook an internal review of the test. It was determined that some of the questions were flawed and that two additional firefighters had passed the written exam, making them eligible for the next round of testing. Among those that still didn't make the cut: Mary Maresca, Bleskachek's current girlfriend.

According to lawsuits subsequently filed by Cornell and Mullen, the pair was summoned to Bleskachek's office in City Hall on February 7. The chief's alleged statement to them: "I am unhappy with the test results." The testing process was then suspended. Roughly a week later, the search for additional battalion chiefs was officially called off.

In the ensuing weeks, Bleskachek made a series of appearances at stations around the city to explain her decision. According to several people who were present at these talks, the chief's rationale for abolishing the testing process was that additional personnel were needed to handle administrative duties. Owing in part to new mandates placed on the department by the federal Department of Homeland Security, she explained, more staffing was required at City Hall. Consequently, there was no longer sufficient funding to hire the two battalion chiefs.

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