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A Hunk of Burning Love

Kris Drake

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.

"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.

 

Suspicions about this explanation were bound to arise, however, because of the messy personal history that Bleskachek shared with the two candidates who had passed the initial portion of the exam. Cornell and Bleskachek began dating in 1996, according to legal documents, and remained domestic partners until 2002. At the time their relationship began, Bleskachek had a two-year-old daughter that she'd conceived through artificial insemination. In 1999 a son was added to the family. That same year Cornell formally adopted both kids.

By all accounts it was a tumultuous relationship. Cornell alleges in her lawsuit against Bleskachek that "on approximately 10 occasions" she was physically assaulted by her partner. After the relationship ended in 2002, a bitter custody dispute ensued. To complicate matters further, another former partner of Bleskachek's (who does not work at the fire department) also shared custody over the oldest child.

During the legal proceedings, Cornell insisted that the kids receive therapy to cope with the violence that they'd witnessed. "Regularly, Bonnie would yell and scream at me and threaten me for simple things, such as when I did not agree with her," she stated in a 2004 affidavit. "In addition, Bonnie hit and punched me and attempted to strangle me on more than one occasion during our nearly seven-year relationship." Bleskachek insisted in court pleadings that she did not physically abuse Cornell and that there was no need for such counseling. Jerry Burg, her attorney, echoes that sentiment: "Cornell's been making that up for years," he says.

In the meantime, Bleskachek's climb up the department ladder continued. She was named a battalion chief in 2001, then assistant fire chief in March 2004. Three months later, when Chief Rocco Forte announced that he was stepping down, Bleskachek was tapped to oversee the department.

Cornell claims in her lawsuit that Bleskachek used this newfound power to punish her, by allegedly denying her training opportunities, as well as access to job duties that would help put Cornell in line for promotions. The suit alleges, for instance, that in January 2005, Cornell was refused permission to attend the Harvard/National Fire Academy Fellowship program. In addition, the veteran firefighter was reprimanded for purportedly running afoul of the department's sick leave policies in February of this year. It was the first time in her 12 years with the department that Cornell had been disciplined for her on-the-job behavior.

Mullen's social history with the chief is slightly less intimate. Beginning in 1999, Mullen had a roughly one-year sexual relationship with Mary Maresca. In 2003, Maresca began dating Bleskachek, a relationship that continues to this day. Mullen's lawsuit also states that her 20-year friendship with the chief ended in 2004, mainly because of tensions over the Bleskachek-Maresca affair.

Despite these murky social connections, the principal allegation in both suits is quite simple: Bleskachek cancelled the battalion chief test in order to retaliate against Mullen and Cornell.

Bleskachek declined to answer questions from City Pages. Her attorney, however, insists that the decision to abolish the testing process was not made by Bleskachek alone. He says that several individuals, including the two deputy fire chiefs, were involved in the decision-making process. "The chief was one voice of a group of people," Burg says. "She's not exactly the czar of Russia. She's not making this decision by herself in a vacuum."

Both Cornell and Mullen also declined to speak with City Pages about the issues raised in their lawsuits. Their attorney, John Klassen, says that his clients pursued legal recourse only as a last resort. "It's apparent there's some deep, deep problems within the department that stem from the top down," he notes, "which is terribly unfortunate given the opportunity that the GLBT community had here to put forth a leader in such a strong and visible position."

Whatever the personal animus between the parties involved, it's clear that Bleskachek's decision to cancel the battalion chief test was widely unpopular among the rank and file in the fire department. "We did tell her that we weren't real happy with that decision," says Tom Thornberg, president of Firefighters Union Local 82. "But we have no recourse in that area. That's basically her choice to make that decision, how many battalion chiefs she has working."

One veteran firefighter, who would only discuss the situation anonymously, notes that Cornell can be a divisive personality within the department, but not on this issue. "[Bleskachek] accomplished something I've never seen on this job," this person notes. "She got 100 percent of Local 82 to support Jennifer Cornell."

 

K ristina Lemon says that she tried to simply go about her job after the incident in the winter of 1996 when Bleskachek allegedly made sexual advances toward her. But it wasn't long before the issue surfaced again.

According to Lemon's legal complaint, Bleskachek approached her several months later while Lemon was on duty at Station 21 in the Howe neighborhood of south Minneapolis. Bleskachek informed Lemon that she'd been physically assaulted while in Mexico and wanted her help in working through a difficult time.

Lemon says that she initially rebuffed her superior's entreaties, but agreed after repeated calls on her pager to meet up at Bleskachek's residence. "You try to help people if you can," Lemon says now. "It was weird. But I figured something had occurred that was huge and obviously she needed help."

Lemon was uncomfortable from the outset of the meeting, and says that she immediately sensed that Bleskachek's real motive for requesting her presence was to pursue a sexual relationship. Things turned ugly shortly after her arrival, when Bleskachek took a call from her domestic partner at the time, Jennifer Cornell.

As Lemon tells it, the couple proceeded to get into a heated argument. It was clear that Lemon's presence at the house was the cause of the quarrel. "It just suddenly took a turn," she says. "It just felt icky, like bad boundaries." Lemon left the house as soon as possible, vowing to avoid personal, off-the-job interactions with both Bleskachek and Cornell in the future.

But within weeks, according to Lemon's lawsuit, the couple called her at home. Bleskachek allegedly grew irate during the conversation, insisting that Lemon "had feelings" for her and wanted to pursue a sexual relationship.

From this point forward, Lemon's and Bleskachek's relationship was highly antagonistic. Lemon claims that her hostile reaction to Bleskachek's sexual advances proved troublesome on the job. "She was pretty powerful at that point," Lemon says. "She was pretty much being groomed by [then-Chief] Rocco Forte."

Lemon also became troubled by the role within the department of the Minnesota Women Fire Fighters Association, which was founded by Bleskachek and Cornell. Since the group's creation in 1995, it had become a powerful force. According to Lemon's lawsuit, Forte consulted with the MWFFA about promotions and other day-to-day decisions regarding how the department was run.

Although the MWFFA is credited by many with bolstering the ranks of female firefighters in Minneapolis, Lemon says now that she came to view it primarily as a social club and lesbian dating service. "They spent most of their time discussing their sex lives and their personal lives and very little time discussing how they could assist or help other women be successful," she says.

Bleskachek's attorney, Burg, scoffs at this characterization of the MWFFA. "I think it's a sad state of affairs that an individual, who for one reason or another didn't fit in, decides to trash the whole organization," he says. "I'm sure there was a social aspect to it, but I think it's overly dramatic and sensational to essentially call it a sex club for women."

Furthermore, Burg insists that Lemon was actually the one pursuing a sexual relationship with Bleskachek. "The chief wasn't interested," he says. "The chief was involved with Cornell at the time."

T he fire department that Lemon and other recruits joined in 1995 was dramatically different from that of a decade earlier. Minneapolis did not hire its first class of female firefighters until 1986, when nine women joined the department.

Mary Mohn, who was among that first wave of recruits, says that she didn't encounter too much outright hostility from her male counterparts. She viewed certain hazing rituals, such as having a bucket of water dumped on her, as part of the acclimation process. "I didn't attribute it to being a woman," she says. "I attributed it to being a rookie."

In 1992, Mohn and Bleskachek were part of the first all-female fire fighting team. Jean Kidd headed up the four-person unit, becoming the first female captain on the squad. Mohn says that at this point she did encounter antagonism from the male majority. She recalls the thinking that was prevalent at the time: "When you put a whole crew together, the whole world is gonna fall apart. Clearly they can't do the job." Mohn says that the all-female team was occasionally left without sufficient backup as a kind of test of their mettle.

The number of women on the force has mushroomed in the last 20 years. Of the 435 firefighters currently employed by the city, some 71 are female—the highest such ratio in the country. St. Paul, by contrast, has just 14 women among its sworn firefighter personnel. In New York City, to cite an extreme example, only 33 of the city's 11,000-plus firefighters are women.

 

The emergence of significant numbers of women in the fire department's ranks stems in part from litigation filed more than three decades ago. That civil rights lawsuit, known as the "Carter Case," had nothing explicitly to do with gender, however. It was filed on behalf of a group of minority would-be firefighters, both men and women, who claimed that they were victims of systematic discrimination in hiring by the city of Minneapolis. In 1972, a federal judge agreed with their claims and placed the city under court order to fix the problems.

Oversight by the courts would remain in place for 28 years as Minneapolis slowly integrated its force, often under threat of fines and judicial punishment. In the mid-'90s, for instance, when Tom Dickinson was fire chief, the city was forced to pay out more than $1 million in penalties after a promotion test was found to be racially biased.

The end result, however, has been profound: 133 out of 435 current employees of the fire department, or 31 percent, are minorities. Based on Minneapolis's solid improvements in minority hiring, the federal court oversight finally came to a close in 2000.

Most people who were involved in the legal dispute see a direct correlation between that litigation and the growth in the number of female firefighters in Minneapolis. "It's hard to be certain about cause and effect, but I do know that one of the things we sought to do was make sure that all people of color had the opportunity to become firefighters in the city of Minneapolis, and that included both men and women," says Jay Wilkinson, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society of Minneapolis who worked on the case. "I think it's fair to assume that the leadership in the department did not want the city of Minneapolis to have a lawsuit concerning discrimination against women in the fire department since they already had considerable efforts underway to address the racial segregation of the department."

Most observers believe that the MWFFA also deserves significant credit for increasing the number of female fire department employees. The group has primarily focused its efforts on recruiting and preparing potential female firefighters. In much the way that white men once schooled family members and friends to get through the written and physical tests, the MWFFA's members became mentors to new classes of female recruits. The group also was instrumental in working with Chief Forte to design a physical test that directly correlated to skills needed on the job without being discriminatory toward women.

"A lot of the women wouldn't be in the department if not for that organization and the training they provided," says Mohn. "Bonnie has done a tremendous amount of work. I have to give her credit for all that."

Wilkinson believes that the strides made in reducing hiring discrimination, whether against women or racial minorities, have been substantial. "I don't know that we're at the point of equality, but we're certainly a lot closer to equal opportunity in the fire department than we were in 1970 or 1980 or 1990," he notes. "It will continue to be a struggle."

Perhaps nothing symbolized these gains so much as the appointment of Bleskachek to be the city's fire chief in 2004. "She's broken barriers, and that's significant," Mayor R.T. Rybak said publicly at the time. "But what's especially significant is that none of it is considered that big of a deal in the fire department. There she's known more as a leader and as someone who has worked side by side in the line of duty."

It's difficult to gauge Bleskachek's overall performance, given that she was on the job for less than two years before being placed on administrative leave. But some department employees who aren't embroiled in the lawsuits are complimentary of her 15-month tenure. Last July Bleskachek convinced the Minneapolis City Council to implement a floor on staffing levels for the department. The city is now required to have at least 96 firefighters on the clock at all times.

"Prior to that we didn't have a minimum and we had, because of budget problems, been going down for several years," says Deputy Chief Jim Clack, who has been placed in charge of the department in Bleskachek's absence. "She was basically able to stem that tide by showing the council, with statistics, that we needed a minimum of 96."

Staffing levels had been a sore issue with Firefighters Union Local 82 under Chief Forte. Union officials didn't feel like he made sufficient efforts to fight for department funding and generally acquiesced to budget cuts. Bleskachek's willingness to lobby for additional personnel was a welcome change. "The union's relationship with the chief since she's been made chief has been pretty good," says Thornberg, the Local 82's president. "From the union's standpoint, we've felt that she's done a pretty good job."

 

Whatever the perception of Bleskachek's brief tenure, some fear that the allegations currently swirling around her will result in negative blowback on all women within the department—especially those who are openly gay. Wilkinson says it would be unfortunate if the chief's problems undermine three-plus decades of progress in eliminating discrimination from the fire department. "The allegations are that somebody in a position of power abused their position of power," he notes. "It's not Bleskachek's color. It's not Bleskachek's gender that is the problem. It's alleged misuse of her power."

S hortly after her nasty personal confrontations with Bleskachek, Kristina Lemon says she began running into problems on the job. In 1999, according to her personnel file, she was written up for getting into an altercation with another firefighter. Then, in 2003, she was given a verbal warning for "continuously confronting or badgering" another colleague. In addition, Lemon was twice found in violation of the department's policies regarding sick days in recent years.

Early last year, Lemon became engaged in a simmering conflict with another firefighter, Shanna Hanson. Lemon says that she'd repeatedly attempted to defuse the situation by bringing it up with her superiors, but that her pleas were ignored.

As recounted in her lawsuit, she and Hanson both responded to a north Minneapolis house fire in February of last year. At the scene, Hanson purportedly refused orders to ventilate the basement of the house. A physical altercation ensued. Lemon alleges that Hanson grabbed the straps of her gear and shoved her to the ground. An internal investigation was launched to look into the incident. The end result: Lemon was suspended for 44 hours without pay.

Lemon blames these incidents on her troubled personal history with Bleskachek. "I've just been put in such dim light," she says. "I'm pretty much fair game. If you've got an issue with Lemon, or you want to make one, go for it."

Frustrated by these repeated incidents, Lemon filed a complaint with the Minneapolis Department of Civil Rights last November, alleging that she'd been discriminated against. But according to Lemon's attorney, Dan Rasmus, the complaint was ignored. "They just sat on it," he says.

Shortly after the filing of Lemon's civil rights complaint, a letter arrived at her home from Mary Maresca, Bleskachek's current domestic partner. It was addressed to Lemon's partner, Leslie Zeisemer, who is also a firefighter. In the letter, Maresca asked Zeisemer to join the MWFFA. Lemon and Zeisemer sent the letter back with a brief comment: "Thanks, but we will consider joining on its own merits."

The response from Maresca was vehement, according to Lemon's lawsuit. She left a two-minute-plus profanity-laced voicemail message on Zeisemer's cell phone. "I hope you can hear in my voice how unhappy I am right now," it begins. "So I'm gonna try to not overreact. But I want you to know I am fucking pissed." Maresca then encourages Zeisemer to return her call, before growing agitated again. "Don't think for a minute that I won't drive up to your house, knock on the door, and we'll have this fucking thing out right in the open," she warns. "[Lemon] doesn't want to fuck with me. So I suggest you find a way to steer her out of my direction. I'm pissed."

Zeisemer then filed a complaint of her own with the Minneapolis Department of Civil Rights over the incident. Maresca was put on paid leave last month while the incident was being investigated, but she returned to duty after two weeks. "We're very disappointed that there was no formal punishment leveled against Maresca as a result of that investigation as far as we know," says Rasmus.

Lemon worries that all of these personality conflicts within the department will ultimately endanger people on the job. "If people delay or don't follow orders or have these conflicts, and they can't put boundaries on it, it becomes a really serious safety issue," she says. "I'm that concerned. It's become so ever-present in my daily life. It's paralyzing at work."

She also fears that the allegations currently swirling around Bleskachek will ultimately have negative ramifications for all female Minneapolis firefighters. "I think she's really kind of undermined our efforts to get respect, to be an equal counterpart in the fire service," Lemon says. "I think it's hugely concerning, but it's also hugely concerning that no one stopped this behavior." 


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