Multnomah County quietly jettisoned its top emergency planner last month, amid complaints he’d take hours-long breaks to brunch with his girlfriend, discriminated against employees, used county resources to his own ends, and potentially broke Oregon surveillance laws by repeatedly taping conversations with coworkers.
Joe Rizzi, who’d been director of the Multnomah County Office of Emergency Management since January 2013, denies most of those allegations. He officially resigned his post July 17, a day after being placed on administrative leave and four days after a politically connected employee wrote a scathing, wide-ranging complaint to human resources and diversity officials, records obtained by the Mercury show.
Along with his resignation, Rizzi signed a settlement with the county not to sue, and the county agreed not to challenge his unemployment claims.
The incident is the latest black eye for an emergency management agency that’s seen its share of turnover at the top. Rizzi was the
sixth seventh person to serve as the office’s director since 2000, a span that included another director who left because of problems with his management. The county’s now on the lookout for number seven eight, with former emergency management director Dave Houghton filling Rizzi’s spot in the interim.
“There’s not much to discuss about this,” County Chair Deborah Kafoury wrote in a statement to the Mercury, noting the county doesn’t discuss personnel issues. “What I can say is that of course we take any allegations like these seriously.”
The allegations apparently stem from concerns of several employees over Rizzi's management style and behavior. But it was a complaint filed July 13 by county emergency management coordinator Rachel Novick that seems to have sped things along (she's new to that name, having married City Commissioner Steve Novick on Saturday). Rizzi was placed on administrative leave three days after Novick's complaint, and resigned the next day.
Novick wrote that Rizzi:
•disparaged two employees who are veterans of the US military, insinuating “they cannot think for themselves or take initiative.”
• was “unnecessarily harsh” toward a part-time employee with the department who is black, but didn’t give the same scrutiny to white male employees.
•told her an unflattering story about female colleagues being mistaken for prostitutes.
•used county resources for personal gain. This included having emergency planning staff schedule appointments for him with a chiropractor and using a county-provided Chevy Tahoe for personal errands.
•illegally recorded “all his meetings without notifying the meeting attendees.” Novick says Rizzi told her “he always used his iPad to digitally record work meetings. He explained it was easier than taking extensive notes.” Under Oregon law, it’s a misdemeanor to record an in-person conversation without getting the consent of all participants.
•spent long stretches of time away from office to spend the day with his girlfriend. “I told Mr. Rizzi that the team had noticed his absences and explained that it caused problems, not only because we need him around the office, but because he would often have me ‘clear his schedule,’ for the remaining four or five of the work day…” In a separate email to the county’s human resources director, Novick wrote that Rizzi, who made $122,000 a year, began skipping out on work increasingly. In part, she wrote, “he said he liked being able to go on a two-hour brunch with [his girlfriend] at Zell’s in the middle of the day and then hang out with her at home after.”
Rizzi, reached Tuesday, didn’t want to discuss the allegations in detail—he hadn’t seen the full complaint until Monday. But he denied many claims, and explained away others as Novick not understanding the scope of his position. And he noted Novick filed the documents after a tense performance review in late June.
In that meeting, Rizzi says he told Novick he was concerned she was working abbreviated hours, and awarded her a one percent salary “merit increase” instead of a possible three percent. Documents show Novick attributed the unflattering review to retaliation after confronting Rizzi about his own work habits.
It appears Novick wasn’t the only person raising concerns about her boss. Beginning in July, Rizzi says, human resources informed him there was a complaint against him, then another and another. Rizzi didn’t know who was making the allegations, he said, but when the third arose and county Chief Operations Officer Marissa Madrigal placed him on administrative leave pending an investigation, he decided to resign.
“This isn’t worth the political battle,” said Rizzi, who added he fielded interest from headhunting firms in the 18 months he worked for the county. “If you have a staff that’s undermining you, it’s really hard. I don’t want to be part of the slander.”
Madrigal sent out the following email on July 17:
I am writing to let you know that Joe Rizzi has resigned from the county effective today. Former EM Director Dave Houghton will serve as interim manager beginning on July 28th while we recruit a new director. In the mean time, general questions about Emergency Management can be directed to me. The Emergency Coordination Center response function will be managed by Jerusha Kasch.
Look for more on this story in tomorrow's Mercury. Here's County Chair Deborah Kafoury's full statement:
There’s not much to discuss about this. Multnomah County has a lot of great managers and supervisors who work hard to serve the public. But I’m not going to talk about individuals and how they are doing in their jobs.
What I can say is that of course we take any allegations like these seriously. I won’t go into details but Joe Rizzi is not working at Multnomah County anymore. Staff became aware of certain issues on July 14. Mr. Rizzi resigned on July 17.
I immediately brought in Dave Houghton, who had retired from the position, to serve as interim director of Emergency Management. He is a trusted and proven leader who can lead the department’s response. I will have my staff conduct a vigorous search for the next director of the division.
In the end, it’s important to me that the residents of Multnomah County know that Emergency Management is prepared and ready to respond in the event of an emergency.