York City Council members, citizens, judge and more blast Mayor Helfrich at town hall

Logan Hullinger
York Dispatch

York City Council members, residents, a state lawmaker and a district judge all took aim at Mayor Michael Helfrich on Monday at a nearly three-hour town hall meeting about the controversial appointment of Blanda Nace.

The crowd of more than 70 in the standing-room-only meeting took turns laying into the mayor for what they claimed was a lack of transparency over his appointment of Nace as chief opportunity development officer last month without council approval, as well as other issues.

"This is proof (Helfrich) has had no experience whatsoever in running anything,” said City Council President Henry Nixon after the meeting, angrily recalling the seven-day hiring period for the position last month. 

Blanda Nace reacts as Tonya Thompson-Morgan says that Nace may be the best candidate for the newly created chief opportunity development officer, but she disagrees with the way Mayor Helfrich hired him, Monday, June 24, 2019. 
John A. Pavoncello photo

Last month, Nace abruptly ended his bid for a seat on the York County Board of Commissioners and, instead, accepted the post in Helfrich's administration. Nace's appointment didn't require council approval, as it wasn't to a director position.

Condemnation quickly followed, including a letter bashing the decision that was signed by 42 city residents and out-of-town individuals. Helfrich has called the outcry a politically charged attack that shouldn't be taken seriously.

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

More:Tonight's town hall on York City mayor hire to be 'as informal as possible'

Candace Robertson, the sister of former Mayor Kim Bracey, criticized Helfrich for alluding to the former mayor's supporters and their alleged grudge against him when addressing what she said was a legitimate transparency concern.

"It’s about concerned citizens in the City of York that want answers," Robertson said. "We’re just tired of it. And when I get tired of it, something changes. It's not a threat."

Helfrich attempted to justify his administration and Nace's appointment. He often cited Nace's vast experience in economic development.

"If you can't tell, I’m very excited about what we’re doing," Helfrich said. "We’re moving forward. There is so much that we can do if we work together.”

But speakers continued to accuse him of circumventing the council and losing the community's trust.

Tonya Thompson-Morgan, who circulated the letter signed by the 42 individuals, accused Helfrich of not giving other candidates for Nace's position a fair shot.

And Thompson-Morgan's husband, District Judge James Morgan, also had a bone to pick as he demanded the mayor apologize for what he had said last week in a Facebook live video.

In the video, Helfrich criticized the letter, naming Thompson-Morgan, for comparing him to former Mayor Charlie Robertson.

Judge James Morgan, left, admonishes Mayor Michael Helfrich for naming his wife, Tonya Thompson-Morgan, during a recent Monday morning video and asks for his apology, Monday, June 24, 2019. 
John A. Pavoncello photo

Morgan, at times fighting back tears, demanded Helfrich apologize, saying his family had received threats as a result of the mayor's video. Nothing of the like has ever happened to him before, he said.

Helfrich did apologize, clarifying he shouldn't have brought up Thompson-Morgan's name.

The residents' anger was shared not just by the judge, residents and City Council members. State Rep. Carol-Hill Evans, D-York City, also accused the administration of not working to develop neighborhoods outside of downtown.

“You ran on neighborhood issues," Hill-Evans said. "Maybe a year and a half isn’t long enough, but I’m not necessarily hearing any plan you have to do anything that's going to improve our neighborhoods."

Carol Hill-Evans speaks during a York City Council town hall meeting concerning Mayor Michael Helfrich's hiring of Blanda Nace as chief opportunity development officer, Monday, June 24, 2019. 
John A. Pavoncello photo

The comment came nearly an hour after Helfrich opened the town hall with a presentation about initiatives within the Economic and Community Development Department. 

Those included garnering investments in the city’s five designated opportunity zones, helping grow small businesses using local sourcing and ensuring access to fresh produce by dealing with grocers and the Health Bureau — all in a transparent manner.

Yet those ideas weren't spoken about much, as Nace still took the spotlight. The newest Helfrich appointee was in the audience as his hiring was drilled again and again.

Nace's position entails handling opportunity zones, staffing the York City Redevelopment Authority and other economic initiatives.

Last year, the city considered outsourcing economic development to the York County Economic Alliance, Nace's employer at the time. 

During several City Council meetings, residents of color said outsourcing economic development to the majority-white YCEA would gentrify the city. The criticism ultimately killed the deal. 

That incident was referenced multiple times during the town hall, as was another matter.

Nace's $88,544 salary has come under scrutiny because, based on the city's earlier listing for a director, the salary would range from $69,000 to $85,000.

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

Yet attendees questioned Nace's role and his salary as Helfrich at times struggled to get an explanation in as to the reason for Nace's hiring: With 15 years of experience, no one could outshine his resume.

The mayor also emphasized that Nace oversees only one employee and therefore shouldn't be classified as a director.

— Logan Hullinger can be reached at lhullinger@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @LoganHullYD.