Hennepin County Library Director Chad Helton, whose decision to direct the library system from his home in Los Angeles has come under fire, is a finalist to run the Seattle Public Library.
Seattle library officials announced Tuesday that Helton is one of two finalists for the position of chief librarian for the system. Officials named Helton and Tom Fay, the system's interim chief librarian, as finalists for the job.
Fay is scheduled to be interviewed in a public forum on Feb. 9 and Helton on Feb. 10. Both forums will allow questions to be asked online.
Helton was hired in 2020 to oversee the Hennepin County Library's 41 branches but moved to Los Angeles last summer under the county's policy permitting employees to work from home remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Helton said at the time that his move was permanent, insisting that he could operate the library system through video meetings while returning to Minnesota as necessary. That decision drew criticism from library staffers, union leaders and members of the public.
Helton declined to comment when contacted Wednesday, according to Hennepin County spokeswoman Carolyn Marinan. Marinan also said Hennepin County officials had no comment on Helton's status or his application for the Seattle job.
County Administrator David Hough last month announced a new policy requiring all county supervisors to live in Minnesota or Wisconsin. Supervisors who want to live in other states and work remotely will need to seek an exemption by Monday, when the policy takes effect.
Besides Helton, the only other high level Hennepin County supervisor currently living and working outside of Minnesota or Wisconsin is Chief Human Resources Officer Michael Rossman, who has been living in Palm Springs, Calif., since the beginning of 2021. It wasn't known whether Helton or Rossman have applied for exemptions, and the county has said data practices laws block disclosure of that information.
Laura Gentry, head of communications for the Seattle Public Library, said Wednesday that the Seattle library search committee that selected Helton as a finalist was aware of the concerns raised in Hennepin County about his residential status.
According to Gentry, Seattle library board president Carmen Bendixen "did share that the committee felt that Mr. Helton's strengths outweighed [residency] concerns. She felt he was a strong enough candidate to move forward without that necessarily being a concern for them."
Asked if Helton would be required to live in Seattle if he were chosen for the job, Gentry said search committee members "felt very strongly that this is a community-focused position and strongly believe that the chief executive of the library should live in close proximity to the area we serve."
Gentry added that she was unable to say whether Helton offered assurances to the committee that he would live in the Seattle area.
In a statement, Bendixen said she could not disclose anything Helton told the committee in his first interview. But she said it was important to her that "a successful candidate shows a commitment to the [Seattle] library's community focus" and "be able to conduct community-centered work, including staying connected to our physical facilities and interacting in-person with library patrons, partners, staff and other stakeholders."
She described both Fay and Helton as "strong candidates."
Ali Fuhrman, president of AFSCME Local 2822, which represents library support staffers, said she was aware that Helton was a finalist in Seattle. The Hennepin County system needs "somebody who lives here, understands the community and works to meet the needs of residents and workers," she said.
The Seattle Public Library has 626 employees with a central library and 26 neighborhood branches. The chief librarian salary in 2021 was $216,101.74.
The Hennepin County Library system, which includes libraries in Minneapolis, has 528 permanent and temporary employees in 41 branches, and is authorized to have up to 543 full-time equivalents. Helton's annual salary is $183,174.