Hennepin County Library director hints he was told he had to live in Minnesota

During a Thursday night job interview with Seattle Public Library officials, Hennepin County Library Director Chad Helton suggested county administrators told him he should return to Minnesota from Los Angeles if he continued to run the county library system.

Helton, one of two finalists to become chief librarian of the Seattle system, was interviewed for 90 minutes on an online forum. Seattle library officials did not say when they would make a decision.

Helton, who became director of the Hennepin County Library in 2020, moved to Los Angeles in the summer of 2021 after county officials allowed him to work remotely under a new policy passed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

After criticism from county employees, their unions and members of the public, county officials announced that supervisors such as Helton would have to apply for an exemption by Jan. 31 to continue working outside of Minnesota or Wisconsin. . Having a job where you work face-to-face with clients, County Administrator David Hough told the Star Tribune in December, “isn’t conducive to working remotely in another state.”

The county announced this week that Helton had taken voluntary leave effective Feb. 2. County spokeswoman Carolyn Marinan said Thursday the leave was unpaid. Officials declined to say whether Helton had applied for a residency exemption.

It has since been criticized by library workers, their unions and members of the public.

Asked about the controversy in Thursday’s interview, Helton acknowledged that his decision to live in Los Angeles created “a backlash.” He said he accepted the county’s new position that the library director must live in Minnesota, Helton did not say Thursday whether he would return to the state if he got the job from Seattle.

In an interview last summer, Helton told the Star Tribune that his move was permanent and that he could handle the administration of the library via video conference.

“I had eye surgery coming up so I applied for out-of-state ability and it was approved and moved back to California,” where he had previously lived, Helton said in his interview. with library officials on Thursday. “It’s not something I did unilaterally.”

The county did not disclose whether Helton requested an exception, and Helton did not reveal in the Seattle interview whether he requested one. However, county commissioners, who have not publicly raised objections to Helton’s move to Los Angeles, held a closed session on Tuesday where one of the topics was legal issues regarding Helton.

“The fact that I moved and the policy changed where people thought I should live in Minnesota, every time that policy came, the county decided to change that particular policy,” Helton said in the Seattle interview. “It’s their prerogative and I understand that. It’s what the community wants the post to be there. I fully support that.”

Helton added that he was able to do his job from California. “There have been no complaints from county administration or county commissioners regarding my inability to do my job,” Helton said. “There was a time when I missed a bit of work because I had had five eye surgeries in six months.”

As part of the question about the residency issue, Helton was asked if he would move to Seattle if hired as chief librarian. “I intend to call Seattle my home if I get this job,” he said.

Seattle Library officials announced last month that Helton was one of two finalists for the position of chief librarian. Tom Fay, the system’s acting chief librarian, is also a finalist. Fay was interviewed publicly on Wednesday.

Helton was hired in 2020 to oversee the 41 branches of the Hennepin County Library. The Seattle Public Library has 626 staff with a central library and 26 neighborhood branches. The Hennepin County Library System, which includes Minneapolis Libraries, has 528 permanent and temporary employees.

The president and vice president of the Seattle Library asked Helton a series of questions Thursday about library policy, but none about the residency issue. The public could submit questions remotely and Laura Gentry only read one regarding the residency controversy and did not ask any follow-up questions.

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