Before an unusually large crowd Tuesday, the Anoka County Board found itself in the almost unheard of position of casting back-to-back deadlocked votes over who to pick as the county's next top administrator.

It's a rare show of division for the board, which nearly always backs agenda items with largely unanimous votes. But with County Administrator Jerry Soma retiring May 1, commissioners are grappling with an unexpected stalemate over whether to launch an internal search for Soma's successor or hire their colleague and Board Chairwoman Rhonda Sivarajah, who has expressed interest in the job.

Tuesday's impasse could prompt a special meeting on the topic in the coming weeks as the board weighs what to do next.

Those calling for a formal search said the county's past practice of hiring internally without a job posting needs more openness and transparency.

"There is no opportunity to grow a diverse and healthy pool of applicants for the most important job in the county because there is no ability to apply," said Commissioner Mandy Meisner, who has pushed for a job posting with candidate interviews. "When we can do better, we should do better."

But others want to appoint Sivarajah directly, describing her as the best fit for the job, in-house or otherwise.

"We've got some great talent [in-house] that we continue to nurture, but they're not ready yet," Commissioner Scott Schulte said. "Commissioner Sivarajah is, and she's good."

Sivarajah, who worked for years in the county's Human Services Division before being elected to the board in 2003, wasn't there to hear her colleague's praise Tuesday. She was out of town at a National Association of Workforce Boards gathering.

Efforts to move forward with replacing Soma fizzled, with commissioners locked in split votes.

Commissioners Mike Gamache and Matt Look joined Meisner in supporting an internal search, while Schulte along with Commissioners Robyn West and Julie Braastad voted to back Sivarajah.

"I appreciate the thoughtfulness of my fellow commissioners in working to ensure they are comfortable with the decision and appointment of this critical position," Sivarajah said in an e-mail after the meeting.

Community members lined the walls during an earlier committee meeting Tuesday and voiced their concerns about the hiring process to replace Soma, who supervises about 2,000 county employees and earns $149,000.

"I feel like you're shutting down other possibilities," Jill Bornes, of Coon Rapids, told county officials.

"Are there no other qualified candidates? How would other candidates know to apply?"

Commissioner Look, who supported an internal search, pushed back on claims that the process has lacked transparency thus far.

"This decision wasn't made behind closed doors. It's being made right here," he said.

Hannah Covington • 612-673-4751