L.A.-based Hennepin Co. Library director on leave from 184k job

Under criticism for collecting a $184,000 paycheck from Hennepin County taxpayers from his condo in Los Angeles, the director of the county library system has taken a pause from his duties while pursuing another job opportunity in Seattle. Chad Helton became Hennepin County’s top librarian during the pandemic, but raised eyebrows last year following the revelation that he’d moved back to the Golden State to run the system via Zoom from Los Angeles.

As time went on, the Star Tribune notes, the unusual arrangement didn’t sit well with some library system employees, who pressed the issue with county officials.

Helton disclosed last summer that he had moved to California from the Twin Cities, saying he could run the library system remotely by video conferencing. He said he would return to Minnesota as needed.

His move was initially accepted by county administrators, who noted that large numbers of employees were working remotely, albeit mostly in the metro area, during the COVID-19 pandemic. But library workers, their unions and the public sharply criticized the move.

Ultimately, the county administrator relented, directing high-level staff who wanted to work remotely outside the immediate area to request an exemption by the end of January. Word of Helton’s new employment status surfaced at a Hennepin County Board of Commissioners meeting.

The Hennepin County Board met Tuesday morning to “discuss legal strategies pertaining to” both Helton and Sheriff David Hutchinson, who announced last week that he won’t seek re-election after pleading guilty to drunken driving. The meeting was not open to the public.

In a text message, Board Chair Marion Greene confirmed that Helton was on leave but said she could not discuss anything that happened at the meeting.

The development was welcomed by library staff who raised objections to being managed by someone halfway across the country.

Responding to news of Helton’s leave, Ali Fuhrman, president of AFSCME Local 2822, which represents library support staff, said: “Hennepin County residents and workers need a library director committed to the community here, and we look forward to hopefully seeing some real leadership in the coming period.”

Helton will have a final interview for the Seattle job this week. It’s not clear whether the interview will be held in person or remotely. But evidently, whoever gets the job will be expected to live in the vicinity of Seattle.

Asked in January if Helton would be required to live in Seattle if he were chosen for the job, a Seattle library spokeswoman said search committee members “strongly believe that the chief executive of the library should live in close proximity to the area we serve.” She said she was unable to say whether Helton offered assurances to the committee that he would live in the area.