Cenzano speaks out after dismissal as County EM director

WORTHINGTON -- Nearly a week after Nobles County Emergency Management Director Emily Cenzano was escorted out of the Government Center by County Administrator Mel Ruppert, she's speaking out about the treatment she said she endured and the possib...


WORTHINGTON -- Nearly a week after Nobles County Emergency Management Director Emily Cenzano was escorted out of the Government Center by County Administrator Mel Ruppert, she's speaking out about the treatment she said she endured and the possible case she has against the board of commissioners, Ruppert and Deputy County Administrator Sue Luing.

Cenzano, hired in March 2011 after three and a half years with Scott County Emergency Management, described a work environment where she couldn't do anything right.

The fallout, she said, began in September, when she was given -- in her opinion -- an unfair job performance evaluation. The report followed an initial "excellent" performance evaluation, and then a poor performance evaluation in July.

Cenzano said she doesn't know why she received a poor review, explaining she didn't change her methods of communication with the administration office during that time.

Following the second poor review, in September, she addressed her concerns with a Nobles County commissioner as well as with then-Nobles County Attorney Gordon Moore, who was the county's alternate human rights officer at the time. Ruppert, as county administrator, is the primary human rights officer.


After reporting her concerns to Moore, Cenzano said he filed a formal complaint on her behalf. Three other county employees, including one female department head and two female elected county officials, were also brought into the investigation after she had spoken to them about not being treated fairly and being "overly criticized" for her job performance.

"The complaint was filed on our behalf," said Cenzano, adding neither she nor the other three women were asked to write up anything in the form of a complaint against Ruppert. "We never even saw the complaint after it was written."

The complaint, however, was what initiated the investigation that resulted in Woodbury attorney Michelle Soldo being hired by the county to interview numerous county department heads as well as some community members who interacted with Ruppert because of their positions on advisory boards.

"Once the investigation started, it just continued to go downhill from there," Cenzano said. "It was a very aggressive, hostile work environment for me.

"Even bringing my 'A' game didn't matter -- he was out to get me. That's my opinion," she added. "He just continually would put more hoops out there for me to jump through or change his mind on something. He was setting me up for failure -- there was no way to make him happy."

Cenzano, whose position was three-fifths time -- 25 hours as emergency management director and five hours as safety officer per week -- said if she followed policy, administration deemed she was "doing too much," and if she adhered to guidelines, she "wasn't following it closely enough."

"When I asked for clarification, (Ruppert or Luing) would never give me clarification," Cenzano said. Instead, they'd print out a copy of the policy and hand it to her.

Cenzano said all of the "nitpicking" about her job pertained to the five hours a week she was to be doing safety officer duties. Among those duties were to spearhead quarterly safety meetings, which Cenzano had been doing. However, the fourth quarter meeting, which was to be conducted in November, never occurred.


Cenzano explained she met with Luing to discuss the agenda, and then was required to give 48 hours notice to the administration office of the agenda. Because of the Veterans Day holiday, that agenda wasn't received by administration until 24 hours prior to the meeting.

"They rejected my agenda, even though there was nothing pressing on there," said Cenzano, adding she had to postpone the meeting because of administration's failure to respond to her emails and questions regarding the meeting. When she attempted to reschedule the meeting, she was met with the same lack of feedback from the administration office.

After she received another poor performance review in January, she said she was specifically called out for not getting the quarterly meeting scheduled.

"If I pushed too hard or not hard enough, they were going to make me look bad on it," Cenzano surmised.

By then, her employment with the county had already been in question for several months. She was told during her job review in September that she would be evaluated again in 30 days. That didn't happen, because by then the investigation into Ruppert began and her position was to remain as "status quo."

In December, Cenzano contacted Moore and inquired about the progress of the investigation. She hadn't been given any update on the situation since he'd filed the complaint. Moore told her he expected things to move soon -- and it did in early January, once Commissioner Diane Thier stepped down as board chairwoman and Commissioner David Benson took her place.

In January, Cenzano received an improvement plan, which included tasks that she needed to complete by a specific deadline. Because her job was only two-thirds time, it left 21 working days to complete the plan.

Of those 21 days, however, she said she was out for nine working days due to a mandatory Homeland Security and Emergency Management conference and other pre-established meetings pertaining to her job, and out one working day when she was sick. That left 11 days for administration to evaluate her job performance.


"I met with (Ruppert) twice -- two hours out of that entire time," she said, adding most of their communication was through email.

In fact, during the nearly 12 months she worked for Nobles County, Cenzano recalled just one time that Ruppert actually came to see her in her office, located one floor down from the administration office. That visit was on Jan. 30, when he delivered the poor performance evaluation and requested she meet in his office an hour later.

"Who, as a boss, doesn't stop in to check on employees?" she asked. "It was a very stressful job working for him."

When Cenzano refuted the evaluation she received in January, she appealed to the personnel board of appeals. Again, it was a situation where her appeal first had to go through Ruppert and be forwarded to the appeals committee.

"I had 14 days to appeal, but he counted it as 14 calendar days," Cenzano said, adding that in county policy it clearly states the appeals period is 14 working days. When her appeal was denied, Cenzano appealed the appeal denial to Luing.

"I wasn't even given the chance to appeal my poor performance evaluation," she said. "They had their interpretation -- they were sticking to it to stop the process."

On the day Cenzano was escorted from the Government Center, she was told by Ruppert her appeal was denied.

Cenzano said retaliation is a fair word to use in regard to her dismissal.


As for the outcome of the investigation started by her initial complaint, she was told the plan was to reveal sexual discrimination by Ruppert. When the investigator found he not only treated women -- but men, as well -- poorly, the end result was that no action was taken against Ruppert.

As for creating a hostile work environment, Cenzano said she was told that type of case is more difficult for attorneys to prove.

In her decision to speak out about her dismissal, Cenzano said, "I think it's fair for the taxpayers to know how inefficiently the county is running. There are no department head meetings, and if they try to get together, it's frowned upon, so they don't do it. I think that's a huge hindrance to work productivity. Decisions are made by one person (Ruppert)."

Cenzano also said overall morale at the county is "very poor -- not just with department heads, with everyone there."

That information is something known not just in Nobles County, but seemingly throughout the state, she contended.

"In my whole time working for Nobles County, any meetings I went to -- whether local, regional or state -- people would apologize to me. It was embarrassing," Cenzano said. "The consensus out there is Nobles County is not a county you want to work for, or with. It's so unfortunate things have gone on for as long as they have. The county commissioners don't want to do anything to change it."

Cenzano, who earned her master's degree in public administration in December from Metropolitan State University, said in looking back over the county's employment history, she believes that "anytime (Ruppert) has felt threatened, he gets rid of you.

"If he sees someone doing a good job and being a confident person, he feels threatened by that," she added.


Daily Globe Reporter Julie Buntjer may be reached at 376-7330.

Julie Buntjer became editor of The Globe in July 2021, after working as a beat reporter at the Worthington newspaper since December 2003. She has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism from South Dakota State University.
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