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Library head should live in Minnesota

Library head should live in Minnesota

Working remotely during a public health crisis is a sensible, short-term solution when possible. In a long-term pandemic such as ours, it is even feasible to craft hybrid situations where workers spend some days in the office, others working remotely.

It is another thing entirely to have a key public employee so detached that he conducts all business from a state on the other side of the country.

Chad Helton, former director of branch services for Los Angeles libraries, was hired as director of the Hennepin County Library system in May 2020. A little more than one year into his job, Helton decided to relocate — back to Los Angeles — and informed his staff in an e-mail. He has continued as the county’s library director from there.

Since his hiring, Hennepin County has adopted a new policy stipulating that county supervisors whose workers have direct public contact must live in Minnesota. It takes effect Jan. 31. Helton will need to apply for an exemption if he wishes to continue his employment.

Helton, who did not respond to Star Tribune requests for an interview for the most recent news story, also declined a request from the Editorial Board.

It’s in the best interests of Hennepin County residents — as well as the entities that depend on the libraries — to have a leader who lives in or near the county and is in close touch with the needs of library users.

Library systems are changing. They are far more than just places to check out books or spend time on a snowy afternoon. Successful libraries have become living, breathing reflections of their communities, in close touch with the changing needs of residents.

Public libraries offer common spaces for community meetings, homework assistance, online language classes, computer access and job searches. Many of these are tailored to the needs of specific communities and require intimate knowledge of these communities to do the best possible job.

We have little doubt that the capable staff who operate Hennepin County’s 41 libraries will do their best to meet those needs. They, in turn, deserve to have a leader who is actively engaged in that process, someone who is committed to knowing each of those libraries and their communities. That kind of work cannot be done long-distance.

This is no caretaker position. The library director, who earns more than $180,000 annually, should be leading innovation and helping daily with the struggles of library staff who have suffered through a pandemic that has tested to the limit their ability to serve the public.

Interestingly, when Helton was hired in May 2020, he claimed to have developed an “inexplicable love for Minnesota” that he said dated back to childhood when he cheered Minnesota teams and listened to Prince. He said he had visited Minnesota several times in the last decade and “the more I visited the more interested I became in the community.”

Well, his love appears to have been rather short-lived. When Helton served as branch library services director for Los Angeles, he touted his years of “experience in Northern and Southern California, academic institutions public and private, and public libraries.” As a result, he said in a written bio, “I feel that I have a wide-ranging understanding of the issues that affect California libraries and California communities.”

Exactly. That type of understanding comes from experience — experience that Helton cannot possibly hope to attain by videoconference from California and the occasional in-person visit.

Ali Fuhrman, president of AFSMCE local 2822, which represents library support staffers, has praised the new policy barring supervisory officials from working out-of-state as “a victory for workers.” She said she doesn’t believe exceptions should be made for anyone, including Helton. “There is no reason you should be directing things from another state, period,” she told a Star Tribune news reporter. “Whoever is directing services in the community should be living in the community.”

Helton, in an August Star Tribune story, said in an interview from Los Angeles that working remotely “makes us incredibly nimble,” and that with most county employees working remotely it made little difference where he lived.

We beg to differ. That is facile, self-serving reasoning that does not hold up. The fact is, remote work is hard. As many of us have found in the last two years, it is difficult to remotely maintain connections to family, friends, colleagues, events and community. We do what we must, but no one should pretend it is optimal to try to administer a sprawling library system with well over 500 employees from 2,000 miles away.

Helton should be given enough time to reasonably relocate back to this state, but he should make a choice. He can reignite his “inexplicable love” for Minnesota or chose to make his life — and his living — elsewhere.