York City Council talks legislative power, addresses complaints at town hall

Rebecca Klar
York Dispatch

Members of the York City Council sought to explain what the council's duties — and limitations — are as well as listen to constituent complaints during a town hall on Wednesday, Oct. 3.

Repeatedly throughout the night, council members responded with the same answer: That issue is out of council's purview and needs to be taken up with the mayor or administration. 

York City Council President Henry Nixon, right, looks on as Vice President Sandie Walker speaks during a York City Council town hall meeting at Logos Academy in York City, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2018. Dawn J. Sagert photo

"Because of how our administration operates, it is an administration-dominant operation, so the best thing that we can do is forward it to administration and communicate those things," council Vice President Sandie Walker said. 

The council can pass legislation but is limited in its power to enforce laws once they are in place, members said.

"The mayor actually controls all the actions in terms of enforcement of any of the laws and resolutions that are adopted by council," President Henry Nixon said. 

Mayor Michael Helfrich, who did not attend the town hall, described the mayor's position as similar to a CEO of a company. 

"Everything from enforcing the laws to mowing the lawn falls on the administration," Helfrich said. 

The council also has the power to pass the budget. 

About 50 people came out to the meeting held at Logos Academy.

Council members asked residents to write questions on index cards, which were then read by city clerk Dianna Thompson-Mitchell. 

York City residents submit questions during the York City Council town hall meeting at Logos Academy in York City, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2018. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Police force: Several questioners asked how the council is working to get a better representation of the community in the police force.

As of August, 87.2 percent of the city police department's 109 officers were white men, according to statistics provided by city spokesman Phillip Given.

Census data show 27 percent of the city's residents are African-American, 30.9 percent are of Latino origin and 51 percent are female. 

More:York City mayor, activists agree on how to diversify police department

"I've often said if we had 100 policemen and 60 firefighters and a couple hundred teachers all required to live in the city, it would be transformational for us," Nixon said.

By contract, firefighters, teachers and police are excused from a residency requirement, Nixon added. Other city employees must live within the city boundaries.

Firefighters were excused from the residency requirements during the last contract negotiations in October 2017 under Mayor Kim Bracey. The police were released from that requirement a number of years before. 

"That barn door was open many years ago, and there's no way to close it," Nixon said. 

Helfrich agreed, saying even if the administration goes to arbitration it is unlikely the city would be awarded the ability to reinstate residency requirements.

Teachers are hired by the York City School District, and there is no residency requirement for school district employees.

Redevelopment: Another resident asked what measures the council could take to increase minority participation in downtown redevelopment projects. 

Walker said the council is looking to revamp an ordinance regarding minority-owned businesses in order to make sure city residents are getting a "fair chance when it comes to projects that go on throughout the city." 

"A lot of times when you drive around and see the construction that's going on, the work that's being done on our streets, it can become very discouraging when you see folks that don't look like the people that are the makeup of our community," Walker said. "So in my opinion that money is not staying our community and not benefiting our citizens." 

Meetings: The gathering was the first town hall meeting the council has held as far back as Nixon, who has lived in the city for more than 40 years, said he could remember. 

Time will tell if it was successful, Nixon said after the event. 

The council will gauge the meeting's success based on the questions they continue to get during public comment at council meetings, Nixon said. 

York City Council members, from left, President Henry Nixon, Judy Ritter-Dixon and Edquina Washington participate in a York City Council town hall meeting at Logos Academy in York City, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2018. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Council members encouraged residents to come to council meetings to publicly voice their opinions. 

Residents are not limited to only the five minutes of public comment at each meeting — they can also email or call council members, Councilman H. Michael Buckingham said. 

Walker said it is important for residents to come to all meetings, including committee meetings and Redevelopment Authority board meetings.

"If you don't come, you don't know what's going on, and your voice won't be heard," Walker said. "Sometimes I'm not sure what else we can do; we can't drag (residents) to meetings."

Council members encouraged residents to look into serving on committees and boards. 

The next legislative meeting will be held Tuesday, Oct. 16.