By Erica C. Barnett
The Seattle Public Library announced two finalists for its chief librarian position on Wednesday: Current interim chief librarian Tom Fay, and Hennepin County, MN library director Chad Helton. Fay has headed up the library on an interim basis since former chief librarian Marcellus Turner left to head up the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library system last March.
The Hennepin County library hired Helton in May 2020, apparently believing he would relocate to Minnesota. Helton did live in the state for about a year, but last summer, according to the (Minneapolis) Star Tribune, he informed employees via email that from then on, he would do his $183,855-a-year job remotely from his home in Los Angeles, where he has lived ever since.
Helton’s decision to run the 42-branch system from 2,000 miles away made national news, prompted at least one scathing editorial, and prompted a new county policy last month requiring county supervisors whose employees interact with the public, including the library director, to live in the state unless they receive special dispensation from the county administrator.
Last summer, Helton informed employees via email that he would do his $183,855-a-year job remotely from his home in Los Angeles, where he has lived ever since.
Seattle library board chair Carmen Bendixen told PubliCola that while she couldn’t “share anything that Mr. Helton shared with us in his first-round interview… it is important to me that a successful candidate shows a commitment to the Library’s community focus in the final round of interviews with the Board.”
The job description the library used during its national search, Bendixen added, was “intentionally community-focused, making it important that the successful candidate 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.” When Helton was first hired in Hennepin County, he said he had an “inexplicable love for Minnesota,” according to the Star Tribune.
Helton told PubliCola, “I am in compliance with the directive of Hennepin County Administration in regards to its Future Ready Hennepin plan,” which outlined standards for county employees to work remotely or on hybrid in person/remote schedules. “Should I be hired as the next Chief Librarian, I will be in compliance with all directives set forth by the SPL Board,” Helton added.
The library board will hold one public forum on each of the finalists in February; information about the forums is available on the library’s website.