An employment agreement with County Commissioner Rhonda Sivarajah, who was appointed the new county administrator May 14 to succeed the retiring Jerry Soma, was unanimously approved by the Anoka County Board May 28.

The board named Sivarajah, the current board chair, as the new administrator on a 4-2 vote May 14, with Commissioners Mandy Meisner and Mike Gamache opposed. However, the board tabled consideration of the employment agreement for discussion at a work session May 21.

Because of the delay, Sivarajah won’t start her new job until June 12, instead of May 31 as originally planned.

Commissioner Scott Schulte, the board’s vice chair, presided over the employment agreement agenda item May 28. Sivarajah was present did not take part in the discussion. She abstained on the 6-0 vote. Schulte was then elected the new board chair.

According to the resolution approving the employment agreement, Sivarajah will submit her resignation on or before the next County Board meeting, June 11, at which a vacancy will be declared by the board and a resolution adopted setting a special election in District 6 to serve the remainder of her term, which ends Dec. 31, 2020. District 6 includes the Columbus and Linwood area.

The agreement can be terminated by either party with at least 60 days written notice “for any reason, with or without a specific reason or cause,” Soma told the board at the May 21 work session

Sivarajah’s salary will be $164,985.60, less than the $174,990.40 proposed in the draft employment agreement considered at the work session. Soma developed the draft with Chief Deputy County Attorney Marcy Crain based on a boilerplate agreement the county has with other at-will employees – division managers and department heads – but with some language specific to the county administrator position.

State law caps local government employees salaries at $175,621 based on the governor’s wage, Soma said.

Anything over that amount requires the county to get a waiver from the state, something five other metro counties have received for their county administrators, he said.

Figures provided by Soma show that 2019 salaries for metro area county administrators are $175,621 for Carver County, $188,937 for Dakota County, $220,342 for Hennepin County, $185,525 for Ramsey County, $178,242 for Scott County and $185,162 for Washington County, while St. Louis County, which includes Duluth, pays its administrator $188,676.

When he was appointed county administrator in April 2011, Soma’s salary was set at $149,000, and in November 2012 a contract amendment allowed him to be given the option of receiving an equivalent amount of flexible time off for all or part of salary adjustments given to county employees, according to Soma.

His present salary is $149,011, but with 222.4 additional flexible time off hours, his total compensation package is $164,944.

County board members did not want to pay the $174,990.40 proposed in the employment agreement, given Sivarajah’s lack of experience as an administrator, and reached consensus on Schulte’s suggestion of $164,985.60.

There was nothing in the agreement presented at the work session addressing an evaluation of Sivarajah’s job performance, save a sentence that the “employee shall report to the board chair” and language that states there is no probationary period and no probationary salary increase.

In the document approved by the board was a clause that after six months, the board may grant a salary increase in an amount deemed appropriate, which could be over and above wage adjustments given to other regular employees.

Although not spelled out in the agreement, Meisner said that matter would be handled by a three-member board panel after receiving input from all County Board members in writing or orally.

Politics enters discussion

The major disagreement at the May 21 work session was a proposal by Meisner, supported by Gamache, to add a “political activity prohibition” clause to the draft banning Sivarajah from participating in any political campaign or election of anyone running for Anoka County commissioner, whether an incumbent or challenger.

According to Soma, Sivarajah had agreed to the language.

Meisner requested the section “as a matter of public confidence” because of Sivarajah’s past involvement in political campaigns at the state (lieutenant governor) and federal (Congress) levels.

Commissioner Matt Look had a major problem with including the clause as a freedom of speech issue, he said.

Schulte called the language an “overreaction” and not necessary, and Commissioner Robyn West agreed, while Commissioner Julie Braastad said she was strongly opposed to the clause.

Indeed, Look said if four members of the board don’t like something Sivarajah is doing as the county administrator, they can vote to fire her.

At the board meeting this morning, Meisner said she still believed the political activity prohibition clause should be part of the agreement because “it would benefit all involved” and was part of employment agreements for other county and city administrators in the state.

“It would build public trust,” she said.

While she was very disappointed the language was not included, Meisner said she would accept the majority consensus and vote for the employment agreement.

According to Look, while the clause is not in the agreement, it is “pretty clear” that the board does not want the administrator to be involved in any county commissioner elections.

Two residents spoke at the Management Committee public comment period that preceded the board meeting in support of the political activity prohibition clause.

Mel Aanerud, of Ham Lake, spent 34 years as a U.S. Small Business Administration employee before he retired and was subject to the Hatch Act, which bans political activity in any form by federal employees, he said.

“It prevents any decision from being influenced by politics,” Aanerud said. “And it prevents any repercussions for employees.”

According to Aanerud, the county should consider political activity regulations for all its employees, not just county administrator, to avoid political considerations and protect employees.

While Wes Volkenant, of Andover, agreed with the administrator salary and six-month review in the agreement, he said he strongly disagreed with the omission of the political activity language.

Sivarajah has been immersed in politics for the past two decades and he “does not trust her to stay neutral” as county administrator in political campaigns, Volkenant said.

Sivarajah has served on the County Board since January 2003 and been its chair since 2011.

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