A year into his job, Hennepin County Library Director Chad Helton has moved to Los Angeles, where he says he will work "most of the time."
The county's human resources chief, 30-year Hennepin County veteran Michael Rossman, has been living in Palm Springs, Calif., since January. Working remotely has been a success and presented no problem for him, he says.
But the living situations for both department heads have raised eyebrows among some county employees, many of whom must go to workplaces to serve the public — particularly library workers who say Helton should be based in the metro area where Hennepin's 41 branches are located.
"How can he run a county library system from halfway across the country?" asked Cassandra Hendricks, an associate librarian at the Hopkins branch. "It feels as though the administration is so removed."
Helton and Rossman's residential situation has the backing of County Administrator David Hough, who said the interim policy was developed by top administrators last year. It permits employees to work out of the state during the pandemic as long as their supervisors approve of the move and they can do their jobs.
According to the county, 74 Hennepin County employees are now working out of state. That number includes 45 in Wisconsin, at least some of whom likely live in the western part of the state near the Twin Cities.
Helton and Rossman, who each make more than $180,000 a year, are the highest level county officials working out of state.
Helton oversees a system of 41 libraries with 562 employees, and Rossman supervises a staff of 120 full-time equivalent workers.
Hough called them "exceptional leaders" and hard workers who have performed well from their distant homes, and he said they "will come here when needed." Both men said they will travel to Minnesota at their own expense.
The out-of-state policy did not require approval from the County Board, Hough said.
But Board Chairwoman Marion Greene said she had no objections to Helton and Rossman working from California.
"We are in this time of transition during the pandemic, and I see this as a new normal — of embracing remote work in Hennepin County," Greene said.
Commissioner Kevin Anderson said he also supports the policy. Permitting employees to work out of state, he said, "provides an opportunity to get talent and retain talent. ... As long as our employees are doing their job, remote work is going to be how we deliver our services."
The future of work
Hennepin County shut down many of its offices with the outbreak of the coronavirus in March 2020, when 6,300 to 6,500 of the county's 9,000 workers began working remotely.
The interim policy to work out of state was implemented in November and requires workers to get approval from their supervisors and Rossman himself. The policy was scheduled to end Sept. 7, but it was extended last week to Dec. 31 and could be extended beyond that, according to a memorandum from Rossman.
He said it wasn't a conflict of interest for him to take advantage of a policy he helped develop.
"My desire and my ability to utilize an out-of-state policy is not what drives the need for the policy," he said. "It is what the future of work looks like."
Rossman declined to say why he is living in Palm Springs, but said he has lived there since the beginning of the year, "pretty much full time," and that he plans to stay at least through December.
"The ability to harvest and retain talent who may not be as close to headquarters is necessary," he said, adding that work done virtually has been as good or better than in person.
"Because of the magic of technology, we have been able to meet all the needs and not let anything slide," Rossman said. "The next generation ... wants workplace balance. They want to be judged on the products they produce, not adapt to paradigms of the past."
Helton first officially told library staffers about his move to California in an e-mail on July 28. "New policies are in development," Helton wrote in part, "but in the interim, the county has offered hybrid and remote staff greater flexibility for remote working locations.
"I am currently making use of that flexibility and spending more of my time working from California. My work plan is in compliance with Hennepin County's interim out-of-state working policy and is supported by county administration."
Helton, a North Carolina native who headed the Los Angeles library system's branches before taking the Hennepin County job a year ago this month, declined to say why he had chosen to make his permanent home in Los Angeles.
When he was hired as Hennepin County's library director in May 2020, Helton said he had developed an "inexplicable love for Minnesota" from the time he was a child, when he cheered for the Twins and Vikings and listened to Prince. He said he had visited Minneapolis several times since 2010.
"The more I visited, the more interested I became in the community," he said in 2020, "and then this opportunity of a lifetime presented itself."
'Makes us incredibly nimble'
Interviewed recently from Los Angeles, Helton said that working remotely "makes us incredibly nimble." With most county employees working remotely, he said, it makes little difference where he lives.
He said he has conducted virtual meetings with his staff but hasn't gotten around to visiting all the library branches. When he worked in the Los Angeles system, he said, "it took a year and a half to get to all 72."
Helton said he will be in Minnesota "a lot" even though he's living in Los Angeles. "I will be a part of the community and continue to be part of the community," he said.
Cathy Fischer, president of the Friends of the Plymouth Library — one of the busiest branches in the Hennepin system — said Helton's relocation to California was disrespectful to the community and to front-line staffers who are providing in-person service to the public.
He should "be visiting libraries, thanking and encouraging staff," she said, as well as getting to know the communities served by the libraries.
Teresa Barnhill, an office specialist who works at the Ridgedale Library, said library workers feel unsupported by the administration.
"How can they support a director who is nowhere near the community?" she asked. "Morale is very, very low."
Angel Gardner-Kocher, president of AFSCME Local 2864, said she believes the library director needs to be in the community that county librarians serve.
"We work with library users every day, and we care about giving them the best possible service," said Gardner-Kocher, a librarian at Pierre Bottineau Library in northeast Minneapolis.
"Our residents deserve to be led by someone who can be by their side through everything we face together."
Members of the Hennepin County Library Board — an advisory group appointed by county commissioners — lose their seats on the board if they move outside the library service area, according to the board's bylaws. There is no such provision for the library director.
Three members of the Library Board said they were unaware that Helton had moved to California.
"That is the first I heard of it," said Board Member Jonathan Gaw. He declined to offer an opinion: "I would have to look into it a little more."