West Yorkers talk race, the future after mayor's posts

Sean Philip Cotter

Dozens of people from West York and the surrounding area showed up Saturday afternoon for a forum held by the borough council in response to racist Facebook posts by Mayor Charlie Wasko. Many in attendance called for his dismissal and talked about the need for a continued conversation about race.

On Wednesday, The York Dispatch reported that Wasko, who was elected mayor in 2013, has made several posts on Facebook this year that council members took issue with: Two compared President Barack Obama and his family to apes, and one suggested Obama should be hanged with a noose. Another post featured a fictional black person saying that socialism is "when the white folks work every day so we can get all our governmental entitlement stuff for free."

The post involving the noose appears to have been deleted, but the others were still on his public page Sunday evening. Borough council President Shawn Mauck released a statement Friday about Wasko's posts, saying that council and law enforcement are "taking every opportunity to explore how to legally remove him from office."

Borough resident Rhonda Phillips said she'd lived in West York since 1971, when she and her black father and white mother moved there. She said they were the first mixed couple in the borough and were mocked by residents and police officers.

West York mayor responds to controversial Facebook posts

"You name it, we walked down the street and we got called it," she said.

Phillips said she's pleased that a story like this is in the news about West York.

"I'm so glad this finally came out in West York borough," she said.

Wasko didn't respond to multiple calls The York Dispatch has placed seeking comment since Wednesday. The Associated Press was able to reach briefly on Thursday; he told the organization he'd have more to say soon about what he called the "witch hunt" against him.

One of his Facebook friends commented on a picture that wasn't racial in nature that the mayor had "made the Dispatch," to which Wasko wrote a couple of sentences in response.

West York mayor faces censure but not removal

"Sorry, But I will not be politically correct, I say what is on my mind and what I believe in, I say what people think but are afraid to upset the liberal media and crooked politicians ... there will be more to come from me," he wrote on Thursday. "When I ran for this position, I told the residents that I will work with council but I won't put up with and wrong doings. I will let residents know what they really do, and the bomb is ready to drop on Mauck and (councilman Brian) Wilson."

At the forum: West York resident Dani Rodkey spoke at the forum, saying a concerted effort is needed to address racial issues in the borough and the area.

"You should all come back here and sit down every month," she said, "If we all don't show up, then nothing happens. It's time now."

Kim Bracey, the mayor of York City, which directly abuts the borough, spoke at the forum, saying the area is all one big community, so the city is there for its neighbor to the west.

"We're here to work through and talk through with you," she said. "This is our community — we're one York."

Bracey is the first black mayor in the history of the city.

"As a mayor ... I'm very offended; as a county resident, disgusted; as an African-American woman, outraged," she said.

Dalton Greenlee, a York City resident, was the only person at the forum who publicly spoke against Wasko's removal.

"You can't blame a guy just because he says something or thinks something," said Greenlee, who had begun his statement by reading the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution aloud. "Making laws that go against freedom of speech goes against everything this country was built on."

"I kind of admire the guy for not backing down at all," Greenlee said, though he noted that he disagrees with some of the "stupid things" Wasko said.

Officials: All borough council members besides Alan Vandersloot attended the meeting, and they all called for Wasko's resignation. Chad Baker, head of the York County Democrats, started a petition Thursday on MoveOn.org calling on Wasko to resign. As of Saturday evening, it had more than 1,000 signatures.

In response to a question from the audience, Mauck spelled out what a resignation process would look like: If the council accepted the resignation — which right now it certainly appears the body would — Mauck would temporarily assume the duties of mayor, giving up his normal voting rights, with council Vice President Richie Stahle Jr. presiding over council meetings in his stead.

The council would find and appoint a new mayor by majority vote to fill the rest of Wasko's term, which ends January 2018. Whether Wasko resigns or not, the primary vote next spring and then the general municipal election vote in November 2017 will decide who will serve the next four-year term of mayor of West York.

Mauck and election officials have said the borough council doesn't have the power to force Wasko to resign if he doesn't want to. Mauck said he wishes that were different.

Officials: West York mayor should resign after racist posts

"We hope one of the developments that comes out of this debate is reaching out to the Legislature to make this easier," the council president said.

Police: Several people noted what The York Dispatch reported earlier this week: Wasko, in his position as mayor, has some oversight over the day-to-day operations of the department.

Sandra Thompson, the head of the local NAACP branch, said that while Acting Chief Matt Millsaps has spoken out against Wasko's posts, she worries about the power Wasko has over the force.

"The fact of the matter is he has oversight over the police department," Thompson said. She said she worried that if a police officer behaved badly toward a person of color — or against people of color in general by posting something like what the mayor did — an officer under Wasko wouldn't face punishment.

At the forum, Millsaps again denounced the mayor's posts.

"That type of 'freedom of speech,' if you would, hurts all of us," he said.

In response to Thompson, he said that any officer under his command — which he's held in a part-time, interim basis since  September, when Justin Seibel, the borough's police chief, was suspended — would face punishment for this kind of behavior.

"As long as I'm in this position, I care," he said. "You have a chief that cares."

Borough manager Melissa Wirls said the borough, which also this week  had to deal with a large coolant leak in its administrative building on Wednesday night and a three-alarm fire at a shooting range and gun shop that had ammunition exploding on Friday night, has received calls from all over the country as the Wasko story made national headlines.

"We got 28 calls in five minutes," she said.

Wirls said the views of the mayor in no way reflect those of her or her staff.

— Contact Sean Cotter  atscotter@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at@SPCotterYD.