Minneapolis Fire Chief Alex Jackson retires amid criticism

Minneapolis Fire Chief Alex Jackson is retiring from the department effective February 29.

The decision comes at a time when Jackson's leadership has been under scrutiny with City Councilmembers, mostly stemming from the department's troubled budget.

Last month, Jackson was criticized for a $1 million overtime bill for firefighters in 2011, and a failed program that tasked firefighters with boarding up vacant houses. The latter was supposed to bring revenue to the department, but instead lost about $300,000 in its first year, according to city data.

The decision on whether Rybak would renominate Jackson was expected to be announced early this year.

Given the recent criticisms directed at Jackson, the timing of Wednesday's announcement has raised some eyebrows within the department.

"Do I believe he wants to retire? No," says Mark Lakosky, union president for the fire department. "Do I believe he's doing it...maybe to save face? Yes."

According to the mayor's office, Jackson left on his own accord, and not out of pressure from above.

"I take him at his word that he's ready to move on," says John Stiles, spokesman for the mayor. "It was definitely his decision. It was definitely the chief's decision. The mayor was ready to stand by him."

Lakosky calls Jackson "a nice guy," but criticized the chief's ability to stand up to the City Council and Mayor in a time when budget cuts have continued to reduce the fire department's staffing.

"I think he was in over his head," says Lakosky. "There comes a time when you've got to stand up and tell the council, 'I can't cut anymore without seriously jeopardizing the firefighters and the response we're delivering to the citizens,' and he would not say that."

Pending City Council approval, Jackson will be succeeded by John Fruetel, a former Minneapolis firefighter of 31 years who retired in 2010 as assistant chief for a gig as the city's Emergency Preparedness Training Manager.

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