A former Minnesota health commissioner who has held prominent positions in state government under four governors will become director of the St. Paul-Ramsey Public Health Department beginning Thursday.

Anne Barry, who was state health commissioner from 1995 to 1999, later spent a decade at the Minnesota Department of Human Services working in jobs including assistant and deputy commissioner.

In a written statement, Ramsey County Board Chairwoman Victoria Reinhardt said that Barry “has a distinguished record of public service and brings an incredible wealth of knowledge and management experience to St. Paul-Ramsey County Public Health.”

She succeeds Marina McManus, who retired this week after five years at the agency.

While with Human Services, Barry occasionally found herself on the hot seat as problems were exposed in the state’s mental health system.

In a 2013 report on how the system in effect criminalizes the mentally ill by jailing them for long periods, she said: “I don’t blame anyone for running out of patience with us and how we’ve managed this previously. People shouldn’t be sitting in jail waiting for treatment.”

Barry said Wednesday that she came into her position at a time when there were “all kinds of serious problems at St. Peter,” where the state hospital is located. She saw it as her role to assure the public that “we can do better and to jump into the fire and work with a team to make things better.”

The Ramsey institutional setup is admirable, she said, with a new health and wellness team. But she said it also presents challenges in the form of gaping inequities in health outcomes in a county with relatively high poverty numbers.

Barry was intending to retire and lead a more academic existence after decades with the state, she said, but with kids nearing high school graduation, “I surprised myself by filling out an application.”

Ryan O’Connor, a deputy county manager, praised her “commitment to health equity, and her understanding of the vital importance of inclusion and community partnerships.”

Barry, of Minneapolis, has a bachelor’s degree in occupational therapy from St. Catherine University, a master’s in public health from the University of Minnesota and a law degree from the Mitchell Hamline School of Law.

She volunteers as treasurer and board member with Hope Community, a housing and community development nonprofit, and teaches public health at the University of Minnesota.