After 52 years with Anoka County, Administrator Jerry Soma is retiring, leaving the county’s top job open and touching off a debate over how he should be replaced.
The County Board is at odds over whether to keep with the previous practice of appointing internally without a formal job posting or broadening the search for the county’s next administrator ahead of Soma’s last day May 1.
Soma earns $149,000 and supervises about 2,000 county employees, overseeing the operations of all the county’s divisions, from human services to parks. The Anoka County Board may not look far for his successor.
Chairwoman Rhonda Sivarajah is eyeing the job, and her colleagues will now decide between two competing resolutions at Tuesday’s board meeting.
The board could either vote to launch an internal search that includes a job posting lasting 30 days and candidate interviews, or county officials could appoint their colleague Sivarajah directly.
Commissioner Mandy Meisner, sworn in Jan. 8 as the board’s newest member, wants to post the job — a simple step that adds transparency to the process, she said.
“I would love to see all viable candidates and see what my options are,” Meisner said. “This is a crucial job for the county.”
The topic of Soma’s successor came up under an agenda item labeled simply as “other” at a Feb. 26 work session.
Sivarajah, elected by her peers as board chairwoman in 2011, first publicly expressed interest in the position before stepping out of the session, where the remaining commissioners then weighed their options, according to county officials at the meeting.
“It is up to the County Board to make the decision as to how they wish to move forward,” Sivarajah said in an e-mail Thursday.
Sivarajah said she will not be at Tuesday’s meeting because she’ll be out of town at a National Association of Workforce Boards gathering.
Tuesday’s resolution proposing her appointment describes Sivarajah as “uniquely qualified” and includes mention of her years working in the county’s Human Services Division before being elected to the board in 2003. Some board members are backing her bid.
“She is the most talented person I’ve ever worked with, either at the city or the county,” Commissioner Scott Schulte said. “Too many people are playing politics with a position that has no need to be politicized.”
Hiring from within, he said, is the least disruptive to county employees and morale.
Others are nudging the board to reconsider its approach.
Commissioner Mike Gamache said he prefers gauging interest through a posting and then conducting interviews. It’s what the city of Andover did in hiring two city administrators during his years as mayor, he said.
“I think there’s a value in that process,” Gamache said. “We could sit down and do a real search.”
Some outside the County Board also favor a search, including current Andover Mayor Julie Trude.
“Our city always has used an open process that publishes notice for these high-level openings,” Trude said. “I would hope the county would follow the same process since they manage a $300 million budget.”
County officials say the board would be following past practice by appointing someone as county administrator without a formal search.
That’s how Soma stepped into the role in 2011.
“Every county uses different processes,” said Soma, who started his career at the county as a probation officer in 1966. “Anoka County, with a lot of positions, if they have people in-house, they appoint in-house and don’t go out.”
Commissioner Matt Look said he sees value in hiring in-house and would support posting the job for internal candidates. But if that motion fails at Tuesday’s meeting, Look said Sivarajah would be a good fit.
“She’s very cognizant of the county as a whole and how it operates,” he said.
It’s not uncommon for an internal pick to take over a county’s top job.
Scott County decided last year to appoint its deputy administrator to the position after holding three workshops on the topic. Washington County posted its chief administrator job internally, weighed three internal applicants and ended up promoting its deputy administrator to replace the retiring top staffer in 2012.
The Ramsey County Board also decided to keep its leadership in-house last summer when it hired Deputy County Manager Ryan O’Connor as county manager. The decision followed public interviews of finalists and a monthslong search process documented on a county web page with space for community feedback.
“It’s not so much about the candidate,” Meisner said. “It really is about this lack of process.”