Six York City residents challenge Helfrich's mayoral eligibility
Six York City residents, including a longtime former city councilwoman, have filed a complaint in York County Court seeking to bar Michael Helfrich from holding the office of mayor.
They're also asking a York County common pleas judge to grant preliminary and permanent injunctions barring Helfrich from being sworn in on Tuesday, Jan. 2.
"They are firm believers that the law is the law," attorney Karen Comery said of the six plaintiffs. She filed the action Thursday, Dec. 28, in the York County Prothonotary's Office.
Helfrich told The York Dispatch on Friday, Dec. 29, that he is moving forward.
Moving forward: "Honestly, I'm not focused on the past and I'm not giving any time to it," he said. "We have spent the last month and a half bringing together an incredible team and making plans that are going to change ... the economic development of York City, the health and welfare of the families of York City, and the way we address crime in York City."
Helfrich said he will focus on York City and let his attorney, Chuck Hobbs, focus on the legal filings against him.
Late Friday afternoon, Hobbs said he had not yet been properly served with the filings.
The plaintiffs in the case are Rick Loper, Anthony Orr, Carla Evette Freeland, Margaret Eckles-Ray, Kim Murray and Toni Smith, who spent years on York City Council and whom Helfrich defeated in a write-in campaign for a council seat.
"Pennsylvania law is very clear on what constitutes a bar to holding public office," Comery said.
That state standard is laid out in Pennsylvania's Constitution: "No person convicted of embezzlement of public moneys, bribery, perjury or other infamous crime shall be ... capable of holding any office of trust or profit in this Commonwealth."
Infamous crimes: Felonies have been considered infamous crimes in this state, and Helfrich pleaded guilty to a felony in 1991.
"Mr. Helfrich is barred from holding the position he was elected to," Comery said.
A former York County president judge previously ruled that Helfrich's crime didn't prohibit him from serving as a city councilman. That ruling was handed down after current York City Mayor Kim Bracey challenged Helfrich's election as councilman in 2011.
"The (new) judge can either follow that ruling or listen to the merits of the case and issue a new ruling," Comery said.
If a York County judge denies the motions outright, the entire case will move to Commonwealth Court, she said.
Comery noted that mayor and council member are different public offices and that the plaintiffs are different as well, making this a fresh issue.
If the plaintiffs' motions are granted, it will be up to York City Council to appoint an interim mayor.
"An injunction would restore the status quo and the defendant would merely be restrained from taking office until his disqualification is resolved," Comery wrote in her injunction petition.
The background: Now 47, Helfrich was 21 years old when he pleaded guilty in 1991 to felony drug possession, after he was arrested with a man carrying psychedelic drugs.
Helfrich spent 45 days in York County Prison and was released after his time-served plea when the judge determined “he was not the player in this.”
That conviction was the basis of the challenge from Bracey in 2011 after Helfrich was elected to serve on the York City Council.
Bracey filed her challenge after York County District Attorney Tom Kearney — who represented Helfrich in the drug case — recused himself and the Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office declined to pursue the matter.
Bracey's challenge came after Smith, an incumbent city councilwoman, circulated flyers questioning Helfrich’s eligibility to challenge her, citing his felony record.
Smith defeated Helfrich by 99 votes in the primary, but Helfrich launched a write-in campaign and defeated Smith by six votes in the November 2011 municipal election.
Then-President York County Common Pleas Judge Stephen P. Linebaugh ruled in August 2012 that Helfrich’s felony conviction does not qualify as an “infamous crime,” breaking decades of case law in Pennsylvania under which all felonies were considered infamous.
Didn't appeal: Bracey declined to appeal Linebaugh’s ruling to a higher court, and Helfrich served out his four-year term before being re-elected to the council in 2015. Helfrich took over as city council president in November 2016.
Kyle King, spokesman for the York County District Attorney's Office, said on Friday, Dec. 29, that incoming DA Dave Sunday will review Helfrich's eligibility to serve as mayor after Sunday takes office Jan. 2.
State Attorney General Josh Shapiro's office announced earlier this month that it and the York County DA's office mutually agreed Sunday would handle the review.
'Already decided': Helfrich has repeatedly said he believes the courts have already settled the issue, since he has served in public office for the last six years.
“A decision has already been made on whether or not I can serve in an office of public trust for the people of York City,” Helfrich said at the end of November.
“My limited understanding of our judicial system makes me fairly confident this has been decided," he said. "I would not have run, frankly, for this office if I did not think it was already decided.”
On Friday, Helfrich said he stands by those statements.
Challenger: Loper had promised to challenge Helfrich’s eligibility to serve as mayor if the district attorney and attorney general declined to pursue a challenge.
“We have laws that are on the books that are not being enforced within our own city right now — laws on convicted felons, jobs they can hold, elected and not, and we’re not enforcing them,” Loper said at the York City Council’s Nov. 21 meeting.
“I’m asking the council to step up to the plate and deal with this issue because there is a grassroots movement that’s saying, ‘Look. There is something wrong here.’ Is it going to be up to us to file the lawsuit, or are you going to file the lawsuit and pursue the law?” Loper asked the council in November.
— Reach Liz Evans Scolforo at email@example.com or on Twitter at @LizScolforoYD.