Rizzo's journey to the genteel Washington countryside had its beginnings in Civil Service obscurity.
Thirty years ago, after earning his bachelor's in political science at UC Berkeley and a master's in public administration at Cal State Hayward, and following a stint as a $7.50-an-hour softball umpire, the Bay Area native began his career as an administrative aide in Rancho Cucamonga, where he became assistant city manager five years later. Some of his underlings there remember him as intimidating and standoffish.
"He kept to the people with position and power," said Loyd Goolsby, who worked for the city's building department. "He didn't spend any time with day-to-day employees. He didn't want people to be running up to him and start asking a bunch of questions."
After eight years in Rancho Cucamonga, Rizzo moved to Hesperia as the newly incorporated city's first manager, with a salary of $76,000.
"He was very impressive," said Howard Roth, one of the Hesperia council members who hired Rizzo. "None of us had ever started a city before, and he seemed to know what he was talking about."
Rizzo and his first wife, Sheila, settled in Hesperia with their two daughters. He scored points quickly by finding revenue opportunities for the High Desert city, former co-workers say. They recall that Rizzo had visions of turning the dusty, working-class town into a thriving center of commerce; sometimes, they said, he would court developers with rides in a sheriff's helicopter to survey building sites.
In the beginning, Rizzo made flapjacks at community breakfasts and hosted the staff Christmas party. He also liked to golf and follow horseracing.
But Rizzo could make people bridle.
"He was pretty authoritative in his style and demeanor," said Rob Zuel, Hesperia's planning director at the time. He said Rizzo had persuaded the rookie council members to let him manage as he saw fit, even if it meant managing them as well, a pattern that Bell employees say would carry over to their city. "They were the sheep and he was the herder of the sheep," Zuel said.
After a year, the council raised Rizzo's salary to $83,750. The next year brought another bump, to $95,000. In mid-1991, Rizzo's contract was amended so that if he was fired, he would receive up to two years of severance pay, according to city records.
But some council members eventually questioned Rizzo's work. They suspected him of using money allocated for city improvements to finance staff pay increases, said the former Hesperia official who asked not to be named.
Rizzo subsequently resigned, signing an agreement that paid him more than $108,000 over nine months for consulting services and required him, his wife and the council members to keep the terms confidential, city records obtained by The Times show.
"He received an exorbitant amount of money, and in my opinion, it was a gift of public funds," said Gene Helsley, former president of the Hesperia Chamber of Commerce.
An audit of the city's finances reported that more than $7 million in unspecified transactions had not been fully documented during Rizzo's administration and that restricted funds had been used for general fund operations.
Rizzo painted a different picture of the events leading to his departure. In a 1993 deposition given for a federal lawsuit filed by a former city employee, Rizzo said he was punished because the council had resisted adopting modern standards of city governance, such as strict code enforcement. He also said he had received death threats.
"I knew the council could be vindictive, very, very vindictive. So I basically said…'I need to get out of here,'" Rizzo added in the sworn statement. "This place just is — you know, has driven me to the wall. I can't do any more here.'"
Seventeen years later, Bass, the former Bell councilman, said he regrets that he and his fellow council members did not look more carefully into Rizzo's professional background before hiring him.
In his application letter, Rizzo wrote, "The city of Bell is of particular interest to me because I have the experience and ability to work with the City Council and community to continue the city moving positively toward the next century."
The letter highlights his service in Hesperia, with no mention of any dispute with the council.
"We didn't know about those specific problems," Bass said.