Dakota County Attorney's Office veteran Kathy Keena will fill the county's top legal job, following a County Board appointment Tuesday.

Keena, who started in the county attorney's office in 2000 and was chief deputy before stepping into the top job on an interim basis when James Backstrom retired in February, is the first woman to serve as Dakota County attorney, according to a news release.

"I haven't really reflected on that, other than when you stop and think about it, you say, 'Wow, what has taken so long?' " she said. "I hope it inspires other young female attorneys that are going into public service."

Keena will earn an annual salary of $190,000. She is the only female county attorney in the seven-county metro, though other women have previously held the job in Hennepin and Ramsey counties.

Keena said there will be changes in the office under her leadership, including in the area of criminal justice reform. She plans to run for county attorney in the November 2022 election, she said.

Dakota County Commissioner Mary Liz Holberg said Keena has been instrumental in leading the office during the COVID-19 pandemic. It didn't feel like a good time to change leadership, she said.

"It just seemed like she was the right person to continue steering the ship," Holberg said. "She definitely has demonstrated the ability after Backstrom left."

Keena was one of two finalists considered for the role, along with Elizabeth Lamin, an assistant Ramsey County attorney. Another finalist, retired Minnesota District Court judge Thomas Pugh, bowed out before being interviewed.

Backstrom, who was elected eight times since his first appointment in 1987, officially retired Feb. 27 for health reasons. In an interview, he said he was "extremely pleased" at Keena's appointment, calling the fact that she's the first woman in the role a "huge milestone."

"She's an immensely talented attorney with significant experience," Backstrom said.

Keena is a graduate of Minnesota State University, Moorhead and what is now Mitchell Hamline School of Law. Before Dakota County hired her two decades ago, she served as county attorney in Lyon County, Minn., and worked in private practice.

State law stipulates that when the elected county attorney position becomes vacant midterm, the County Board must appoint someone to serve in the role until voters can choose a new one at the current term's end. Dakota County voters will pick a new county attorney in November 2022, and that person will begin a four-year term in January 2023.

Holberg said commissioners agreed that they never want to have to appoint a county attorney again, preferring instead to let voters decide. She said allowing counties to hold special elections when there's a vacant county attorney or sheriff position will be among the board's legislative priorities next year.

Erin Adler • 612-673-1781