Michael Helfrich: From 'creek freak' to York City mayor-elect

David Weissman
York Dispatch

From convicted felon to environmental activist to president of York City Council, York City's newest mayor-elect has faced numerous challenges to his political career and could face more in the future.

After losing the Democratic primary in May to incumbent Mayor Kim Bracey by more than 300 votes, Michael Helfrich — a registered Democrat running as a Republican —unofficially won the election Tuesday, Nov. 7, by just 133 votes.

Surprisingly enough, it wasn't his closest margin of victory or even the first time he's lost a primary election before winning the municipal election.

Michael Helfrich has been a proponent of pollution control in the Codorus Creek.

Creek freak: Helfrich's rise to relevance in York City began by working for environmental groups including the Codorus Creek Improvement Project, Stewards of Lower Susquehanna and Move Your Ash.

While organizing Codorusfest in 2001 to clean the Codorus Creek, Helfrich was referred to as "the freak that speaks for the creek" by his friend and co-organizer Ed Glazier.

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Helfrich said his interest in cleaning up the creek began in 1988, when he attended an art show held next to the creek and noticed the extent of the pollution.

"I remember at one point (the water) was a dark red, leather color," he said.

Helfrich protested the pollution by putting up signs criticizing the companies pouring waste into the creek and offering people jugs of creek water to drink to emphasize his point, he said.

His active role in cleaning up the city led others to push him to run for city council, which he did, announcing his candidacy as a Democrat in 2011.

"I am not a person who says, 'This creek needs to be cleaned up.' I say, 'I am going to clean this creek up, who is with me?'" Helfrich said at the time, explaining why he felt people such as him should run for public office.

Convictions: Helfrich's bid was quickly met with pushback as a campaign flyer supporting incumbent Democrat Toni Smith circulated before the primary election calling into question Helfrich's ability to hold public office.

The flyer referred to Helfrich's 1991 felony convictions, in which he pleaded guilty to possession of and conspiracy to deliver drugs.

Helfrich was 21 when he pleaded guilty in 1991 to two felony drug charges, following his arrest with a man carrying psychedelic drugs. Helfrich spent 45 days in York County Prison and was released after his plea, when the judge determined "he was not the player in this."

Michael Helfrich wins the York City Mayor's race ousting C.Kim Bracey who served two terms, Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2017. John A. Pavoncello photo

Smith went on to defeat Helfrich by 99 votes in the Democratic primary, but Helfrich mounted a write-in campaign and defeated Smith by six votes in the 2011 municipal election.

Helfrich's seat on the council was quickly challenged by Bracey under Section 7, Article II on the state constitution, which prohibits anyone from serving in public office who has been convicted of "embezzlement of public moneys, bribery, perjury or other infamous crime."

Despite precedents in other state cases that felonies qualified as an "infamous crime," York County Court of Common Pleas Judge Stephen Linebaugh ruled in favor of Helfrich in August 2012, and Bracey declined to appeal the decision to a higher court.

Helfrich said the court fight cost him $11,000, most of which was paid out of pocket.

"I basically worked (on council) for free that first year and a half because I was paying off my court costs," he said.

The York City council recount started at 1:30 p.m. Monday,  and ended three hours later with the exact same number of votes Toni Smith and Michael Helfrich had before the recount. Bil Bowden photo

Moving forward: While his new position brings a new opportunity for a challenge, Helfrich said his legal counsel has advised him that any new court challenge would constitute "res judicata" — a matter that has been adjudicated by a competent court and may not be pursued further by the same parties.

Without any such challenge, Helfrich will take over for Bracey early next year and, though he's since left many of the environmental organizations that originally led to his bid for public office, he plans to incorporate his vision for environmental improvements with his vision for financial improvements in the city.

Helfrich, for example, said he plans to pursue a plan that would place solar panels on public buildings, a suggestion he made to Bracey numerous times.

"There are ways to be 'green' that improve our bottom line," he said.

— Editor's note: This article has been updated to correct the details of Michael Helfrich's arrest and guilty plea in 1991.

— Reach David Weissman at dweissman@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @DispatchDavid.