Chad Helton, who has been under fire for running the Hennepin County Library system from his condo in Los Angeles, has taken a voluntary leave of absence.
Helton’s leave took effect Feb. 2, county spokeswoman Carolyn Marinan said Tuesday. He is one of two finalists for chief librarian of the Seattle Public Library and will undergo a public interview for the job Thursday.
In Helton’s absence, Assistant County Administrator Dan Rogan will provide “direction, oversight and support” to the library’s executive team, according to a statement released Tuesday to library staffers.
The team includes Amy McNally, deputy director for public services; Johannah Genett, deputy director for support services; Patti Hetrick, chief financial officer; Tyslesy Taylor, library human resources business partner; and Ali Turner, community engagement manager.
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.
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.
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.”
Fuhrman has previously criticized Helton for supervising the library from California.
In his statement, Rogan assured library staffers that the change “will not impact the everyday service our libraries provide.”
“In-building service and strategic planning will continue to be top priorities for both county and library administration,” he said.
In December, county officials required supervisors who wanted to work from outside Minnesota or Wisconsin to file for an exemption by Jan. 31. Officials have declined to say if Helton or any other county supervisor has filed for a residency exemption, calling that private information.
The only other high-ranking Hennepin County official who doesn’t live in Minnesota or Wisconsin is Michael Rossman. The county’s chief human resources officer has worked from Palm Springs, Calif., throughout 2021. Rossman’s staff, unlike Helton’s, operates internally and does not interact directly with the public.
Helton, whose annual salary is $183,855, was hired in 2020 after heading the Los Angeles Public Library system’s branch locations. He returned to Los Angeles under the county’s policy permitting employees to work from home remotely during the pandemic, saying at the time that his move was permanent.
Helton will have a final interview for the Seattle position Thursday. According to the Seattle Times, he will speak with the library’s board of trustees and senior managers, and participate in virtual discussions with library staff and the public. The Seattle board expects to name the new director in late February or early March.
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.
The Seattle Public Library has 626 employees with a central library and 26 neighborhood branches. The Hennepin County Library system, which includes libraries in Minneapolis, has 528 permanent and temporary employees in 41 branches.