Anoka County Board Chairwoman Rhonda Sivarajah will make the jump from elected office to overseeing about 2,000 employees as top administrator of one of the state's most populous counties.
The County Board voted 4-2 Tuesday to appoint Sivarajah to the position starting May 31, despite lingering concerns from some residents and officials over whether she's best suited for the county's top job.
It was the second time since March that commissioners weighed Sivarajah's appointment in preparation for County Administrator Jerry Soma's May 30 retirement.
Sivarajah, who worked for the county as a human services supervisor before she was elected to the board in 2002, abstained from Tuesday's vote and stayed mum on her appointment at the meeting.
The job opening touched off a debate over the county's typical practice of appointing someone without a formal search. Board members had been split between hiring Sivarajah, who had expressed interest in the job, and opening the position to other internal applicants.
Following an internal search that yielded 24 applications, a County Board panel interviewed and scored six qualifying candidates earlier this month. Sivarajah emerged with the most points, according to county data.
"It has nothing to do with the fact that she's been the chair. It's her intelligence," said Commissioner Robyn West, who backed Sivarajah's bid. "Of the finalists, I think it speaks well to how close the score was that it was fair."
The other finalists for the position were Cindy Cesare, the county's Human Services Division manager, and Brad Thiel, the county's economic assistance director. Sivarajah scored 167 points, compared with Cesare's 159 and Thiel's 126.5, according to the county.
Commissioner Scott Schulte, who voted to appoint Sivarajah in March, said she rose to the top of the candidate pool during interviews.
"I went in with no preconceived notions," Schulte said. "I went in with an open slate and an open mind, as I promised I would."
Commissioners Mandy Meisner and Mike Gamache voted against Sivarajah's appointment.
"My goal has simply been to find the most qualified candidate for the job," Meisner said. "[Being] the top elected official does not and should not necessarily and automatically qualify you to have the top staff position."
Gamache, who was on the interview panel, said he supported Cesare for the job, citing her experience.
"It's a different job between being a county commissioner and being a county administrator," Gamache said.
County officials will discuss Sivarajah's job contract at a May 21 workshop meeting. A special election is planned to fill her board seat.