York City residents blast Nace's post in Helfrich administration

Rebecca Klar
York Dispatch
Blanda Nace (R) candidate for York County Commissioner, takes part in the York Stands Up bipartisan countywide candidates forum in the Weinstock Lecture Hall inside the Willman Business Center at York College, Monday, May 6, 2019.
John A. Pavoncello photo

Members of the public say York City's hushed hiring of an economic development officer is a cynical work around to restrain public input — especially from communities of color. 

The controversy follows the hiring of Blanda Nace to fill a newly created role, as the director position remains under control of chief of staff Philip Given. It's also nearly a year after protests halted a plan to outsource the department to the York County Economic Alliance — Nace's former employer — that many residents of color feared would gentrify the city.

"Once again, another fuzzy plan from this administration that’s riddled and marred with delusional or drunken thinking in its presentation with incredible arrogance and nauseation," said Tonya Thompson-Morgan, a lifelong city resident. "I can't help but be curious what other qualified applicants were overlooked for this position." 

Mayor Michael Helfrich said Nace's job is "in no way" a director position and the city didn't receive other qualified applications.

However, the position was only advertised after Nace had been contracted to consult for the city, Helfrich said. 

Thompson-Morgan questioned the city's process, which she said was made public through news reports. Her comments at Wednesday's York City Council meeting were seconded by Jeffrey Kirkland and met with cheers from fellow public attendees. 

Similar questions were raised by Da'Vaughn White, a city resident, in an op-ed published Wednesday in The York Dispatch, calling for city government transparency.

York City Mayor Michael Helfrich

The city hired Nace, former director of strategic development at the YCEA, as an opportunity development officer to fill the vacant economic development department. Two economic directors left in the span of roughly four months.

The early May hiring came weeks after contracting Nace as a consultant, before he dropped out of the GOP York County commissioner primary.

After Nace was hired as a development officer, the city's listing for a director was taken down. 

Helfrich said the city is not searching for a director — Given is doubling as acting department director — for budgetary reasons. Helfrich said Nace's salary is "definitely lower" than that of a would-be director. 

More:Blanda Nace drops out of the race for York County commissioner

More:York City contracts Nace to plug economic development hole

But based on the city's earlier listing for a director, the salary would range between $69,000 to $85,000, which Nace's reported $88,544 salary exceeds.

A director's salary ranges from $69,000 to $104,000, based on experience, Helfrich said, and top talent tends to make more than what's advertised. 

For managers, such as Nace, the salary ranges from $60,000 to $88,500, Helfrich said.

"In the couple of days that Mr. Nace has worked for us, he has already brought in a $60,000 fee for overseeing a RACP grant, something that former staff over there said that we couldn't," Helfrich said. "So if people want to complain about his salary, he just brought in $60,000."

'Cynical move': As an officer, Nace doesn't need to be confirmed by a City Council vote. Neither does Given as acting director.

"The shenanigans smell to high heaven and show an arrogant disdain for our people," Thompson-Morgan said. "And what a cynical move to end run around our City Council as if they do not matter, and what a slap in the face to York’s communities of color."

Helfrich said the council has "nothing to do with the hiring of employees of the city of York unless they are director positions."

City Council members did not respond to public comments during the meeting.

Whereas a director oversees multiple facets of the department, including Permits Planning and Zoning, Department of Housing and Urban Development, Community Development Block Grants and the Bureau of Health, Nace oversees the Redevelopment Authority Board and opportunity zone work, Helfrich said. 

More:Rivera set to be York's first Latino councilman; Buckingham mulling options

More:Crime initiative working despite stats, York City officials say

More:Has York City's initiative been effective in curbing gun violence?

Nace's main responsibility is to bring business and jobs into the city, the mayor said. 

"That's why I created the new position called opportunity development officer, to make sure ... we are focused on opportunity zones," Helfrich said. 

Kirkland said the way the position was hired doesn't seem like "a legitimate move." 

"It was a move to sort of thwart the controls people have in the community, to stop people from really having insight or say into what's going on," Kirkland said Wednesday.

'Completely unrelated': Thompson-Morgan said the hiring goes against residents' wishes, noting it came nearly a year after a roomful of protesting residents, mainly residents of color, quelled a city plan to outsource economic development to the YCEA.

Residents felt the plan would further gentrify the city.

"They are completely unrelated. When I hired Blanda Nace, he did not work for the YCEA," Helfrich said.

Helfrich backed the city's choice to hire Nace as a consultant earlier this month, calling Nace "the top person in this field." 

In her comments, Thompson-Morgan pointed out that at the YCEA, Nace was in charge of the Yorktowne Hotel project. 

"A quote, 'fiasco,' which has been left to others to fix," she said. 

The Yorktowne project has nearly doubled in price, from $20 million to $40 million, and the opening date has been delayed since first announced.