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Anoka County Board Chairwoman Rhonda Sivarajah has emerged as the front-runner for the county's top job, following an internal search to replace Jerry Soma ahead of his June 1 retirement.

But Sivarajah's unusual bid to move from sitting commissioner to county administrator continues to stoke debate among residents and some county officials. Not all her colleagues on the board are convinced she's the best pick to run the state's fourth-most populous county.

A County Board panel on Wednesday interviewed six candidates vying for the appointment, and three advanced as finalists: Cindy Cesare, the county's Human Services Division manager; Brad Thiel, the county's economic assistance director; and Sivarajah, who worked in human services as a supervisor before she was elected to the board in 2002.

The panel decided to recommend Sivarajah to the full board for appointment on May 14, but she was not the unanimous choice, Commissioner Mike Gamache said Friday. He favored Cesare.

"I just can't in my honest opinion go forward to the board meeting to say Rhonda is the best person," said Gamache, who plans to vote against Sivarajah's bid.

Gamache, who backed launching a formal search for Soma's successor, was joined on the interview panel by Commissioners Scott Schulte and Robyn West, both of whom had wanted to appoint Sivarajah directly to the job.

Gamache said he supports Cesare because of her administrative experience and interview.

"She could step right in and do the job today," he said.

Sivarajah said in an e-mail Friday that the county's employee relations department has handled the process fairly and followed "the normal protocol they use for any hire."

The internal search began after an unusual stalemate on the board, which was split over appointing Sivarajah right away or formally posting the position. Residents and some county officials raised concerns over transparency.

Most county officials favored keeping the search in-house and voted last month to open the position to current employees, elected officials and former employees who have left the county in good standing in the past five years.

Twenty-four candidates in all applied. The six interviewed this week were chosen because they met job requirements.

Those interviewed were scored from zero to five on 13 questions, county officials said. Sivarajah had the top score with 167 points, compared with Cesare's score of 159 and Thiel's of 126.5, county data show.

Gamache said the score totals gave him pause, especially given Schulte and West's earlier public support of Sivarajah.

"They keep saying they went in with open minds, but it doesn't look like it to me," he said. "It looked to me that Rhonda's point total was so high that I had to go back and think, how many points did they give her?"

Schulte said the panel stuck to the board's agreed-upon hiring process and reached a consensus in recommending Sivarajah, who has been elected by her peers as board chairwoman since 2011.

"It was above board," Schulte said. "I was surprised by the number of applicants and certainly by the quality of applicants … but Rhonda still shined above them."

West agreed. Sivarajah "was the best choice," she said. "The reason I scored Rhonda just slightly higher … is because she was more well-rounded, experience-wise."

But Gamache said he's worried about Sivarajah making the leap from politician to an administrator overseeing 2,000 employees.

"I still don't know that she can do that," he said. "I'm worried that she becomes the eighth county commissioner."

Hannah Covington • 612-673-4751