MULTNOMAH COUNTY quietly jettisoned its top emergency planner last month—amid complaints he had taken hours-long breaks to brunch with his girlfriend, discriminated against employees along racial lines, used county resources for personal gain, 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 claims, saying they're the product of vindictive employees. But Rizzi resigned his post on July 17, according to records obtained by the Mercury, a day after being put on administrative leave and four days after a politically connected employee wrote a scathing, wide-ranging complaint to human resources and diversity officials.
That complaint, though the most formal, was only the latest in a string of concerns employees had raised since late June—all of which questioned Rizzi's biases as a manager.
Along with his resignation, Rizzi signed a settlement with the county promising not to sue. The county, in turn, agreed not to challenge his unemployment claims.
The incident is the latest cloud over an emergency management agency that's seen its share of turnover at the top. Rizzi was the seventh person to serve as the office's director since 2000, a span that included another official who left because of problems with his management. The county's now on the lookout for number 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."
In all, three of Rizzi's employees brought concerns to county officials from late-June to mid-July, records indicate. The most strident was the last, filed July 13 by Emergency Management Coordinator Rachel Novick. (She went by Rachel Philofsky at the time—she married Portland City Commissioner Steve Novick on Saturday, August 9).
Novick wrote to the county's office of diversity and equity (ODE) with a lengthy list of offenses she said Rizzi had committed. The emergency planning director "considered me his confidant," she wrote. "I found several of the things he confided to me to be inappropriate and not consistent with county policies or values."
According to Novick's complaint, Rizzi:
• Disparaged two employees who are veterans of the US military, insinuating "they cannot think for themselves or take initiative." Novick claimed Rizzi had a detailed plan to get rid of one of those employees, Emergency Planner Luis Hernandez, by making his life "as uncomfortable as possible."
• 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 a story of accompanying female coworkers back to a hotel during a conference, and suggested that hotel staff thought they were "prostitutes."
• Used county resources for personal gain. This included having emergency planning staff schedule his appointments with a chiropractor, using a county-provided Chevy Tahoe for personal errands, and using county funds to purchase equipment for a position as a volunteer firefighter.
• 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 away from the office to hang out 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 hours of the work day..." Novick wrote. In a separate email to the county's human resources director, she wrote that Rizzi, who made $122,000 a year, began skipping out on work increasingly. In part because "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."
Records show emergency management employees Kristen Baird and Tina Birch sat down with an ODE official to discuss similar concerns, though accounts of those conversations aren't as detailed as Novick's written complaints.
Rizzi, reached on Tuesday, August 12, didn't want to discuss the allegations in detail—he hadn't seen Novick's 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 that review to retaliation after confronting Rizzi about his own work habits months earlier.
"I am now in a constant state of anxiety, expecting that Mr. Rizzi will manufacture opportunities to accuse me of neglecting my duties," she wrote. Novick declined to comment, standing by her written complaints.
Rizzi says the critical performance review was earnest.
"I had some concerns about the time she's putting into county business," Rizzi said, adding that he was careful not to be too harsh with Novick because he "felt there was going to be retaliation."
Rizzi acknowledged, though, that Novick complained about his working hours as early as this spring. At the time, Rizzi said, he spoke with then-County Chair Marissa Madrigal about the situation and was cleared of bad conduct.
Rizzi also conceded that other employees had raised concerns, calling it a "smear campaign." Rizzi didn't know who was making the allegations, he said, but when the third arose—and Madrigal, since named the county's chief operations officer, placed him on administrative leave pending an investigation—he decided to resign.
"This isn't worth the political battle," said Rizzi, adding that 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."
Rizzi came to the county in early 2013, from a job in emergency planning in Eugene. He took the mantle from Houghton, the retiring emergency planning director, who had stepped into the position in 2008 after the resignation of George Whitney. Whitney's departure, like Rizzi's, came amid complaints about his management style.
During his time at the helm, Rizzi captained the county's emergency efforts during two significant incidents: The February snow storm that brought the region to a standstill and the June shooting at Troutdale's Reynolds High School that left two students dead.
Rizzi, asked about specific allegations, denied wrongdoing. Any recordings he'd made were with the consent of those present, he said. He noted part of his job was taking frequent meetings with other local agencies, meaning he'd be out of the office often. And he called Hernandez, the veteran he'd been accused of plotting to get rid of, "a really hardworking employee."
Reached Tuesday, Hernandez hesitated to comment, saying only: "[Novick] was privy to more information so I think she made a call that was really good on her part. Other than that, personally and professionally, I'm just ready to move on."