After only six months as Anoka County administrator, former Commissioner Rhonda Sivarajah has been awarded a $10,000 raise — double the pay hike rate for many employees — by the County Board she chaired not long ago.
Commissioner Matt Look was the only dissenting vote this week on the 6% raise, saying the bump from $165,000 to $175,000 went well beyond the 3% performance-based raise for which nonunion county employees may be eligible.
“The optics are bad,” he said.
“We were accused of cronyism,” Look said in describing the County Board’s appointment of Sivarajah to the county’s top job in May.
Now, he said, the pay boost was being perceived as further proof of cronyism, especially given that Sivarajah had no prior experience in county administration.
The raise for Sivarajah follows 3% raises for county officials that commissioners approved earlier this month. They set their own 2020 salaries at $71,593.60; County Attorney Tony Palumbo will be paid $184,371.20, and County Sheriff James Stuart will make $167,273.60.
Sivarajah worked for Anoka County as a human services supervisor before she was elected to the board in 2002. She declined to comment for this story.
Board Chairman Scott Schulte on Tuesday summarized a six-month performance review for Sivarajah, saying she had done a “good job relinquishing the policymaker role and embracing the new role of policy implementation.”
He added that feedback from department heads on Sivarajah’s work was positive.
The board approved the raise for Sivarajah on a 5-1 vote as part of her review. The vote also granted department heads the right to remain anonymous in annual evaluations of Sivarajah’s work.
Commissioner Mandy Meisner said she “heavily advocated” for anonymous reviews and asked the board to come up with specific performance criteria for the job instead of sharing how employees feel about the county administrator.
Meisner said she struggled with signing off on the raise but said she agrees with offering competitive salaries to keep and recruit talent.
Schulte said Anoka is one of the few counties in the metro area that does not have a state exemption to pay above the salary cap, set around $175,000.
“And that’s OK,” Schulte said. “I don’t have a problem with that.”
“To that point,” Look responded,” I think we’re going to have to go for that exemption here pretty soon.”
That’s a different approach from that taken by former County Administrator Jerry Soma, who preceded Sivarajah. When Soma hit the salary ceiling, Look said, he requested paid time off to compensate rather than an exemption to raise his pay.
The county administrator’s job “is the summit when it gets to county positions. … It’s a huge opportunity [for Sivarajah] and I thought we were fair enough at the current contract,” Look said.