The Ramsey County Board decided Tuesday to keep its leadership in-house, offering Deputy County Manager Ryan O'Connor the position of county manager to replace the retiring Julie Kleinschmidt.
O'Connor and the board will negotiate a contract for the top county job over the coming weeks.
"We're at a pivotal point in the county's history," said Commissioner Victoria Reinhardt. "When I think of the right decision for this county, right now, it's Ryan."
The pick was something of a surprise. The board chose O'Connor over the other top finalist, Metropolitan Council Chairwoman Alene Tchourumoff, and four other highly touted candidates.
O'Connor originally did not make the cut to a final round of interviews, and he was invited back only after Matt Kramer, a vice president with the University of Minnesota and former St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce head, withdrew from consideration. The board had planned to invite back only Tchourumoff and Kramer.
Reinhardt said that until O'Connor's interview Tuesday, she had been leaning toward Tchourumoff.
"I knew Ryan was good, I just didn't know he was that good," she said.
O'Connor, 34, has been with Ramsey County since 2013. He was promoted to deputy county manager in 2016 after working for more than three years as the county's director of policy and planning.
As one of four deputy county managers he has overseen Ramsey County's largest governmental branch, its health and wellness services. The departments under O'Connor account for more than half the county's $736 million annual budget.
O'Connor helped lead the county's efforts to reduce the number of at-risk children in Ramsey who are court-ordered to be removed from their homes. Working with the county attorney's office, the Sheriff's Office and other community partners, Ramsey County saw a 40 percent drop in 2017 in the number of children who were placed out of their homes.
O'Connor has proved he can jump across departments and build a consensus among peers and employees, said Commissioner Rafael Ortega.
"He knows the county," Ortega said. "He has a passion for this stuff. He gets into it. He feels it."
Commissioners Toni Carter and Mary Jo McGuire had been ready to offer the job to Tchourumoff last week. They, along with Commissioner Janice Rettman, said they still favored Tchourumoff but were convinced that either candidate could lead the county.
"They're both incredible," Carter said. "But we're all in agreement. We have a team that's working. And we have a candidate [O'Connor] that will help us move forward."
Ramsey is in the midst of a changing economy, O'Connor said.
"We're the most racially and economically diverse county in the state," he said. "And in Minnesota we still see yawning differences in outcomes based on the color of one's skin. If we don't bend that curve, our youth will not be on a path to success."
O'Connor said that the County Board has laid out a clear mandate to engage the community and retool county programs and resources to make sure they're reaching the people who need them.
"I'm elated at the opportunity," he said.
Kleinschmidt, who hired O'Connor, plans to retire in mid-July after more than 10 years in the job. She has offered to stay on longer to help with the transition if needed.