In controversy's wake, Helfrich looks for tonal reset
York City's community development town hall on Wednesday wasn't like the rest.
York City Mayor Michael Helfrich and other city officials laid out detailed plans to boost the city's neighborhoods and enrich the lives of its residents. The audience was engaged, applauding and laughing along with officials.
It was nothing like recent meetings where hostility and tension were at the forefront. And that might be because the city has found better ways to engage and inform its residents, Helfrich said.
"Last year, we had broad neighborhood meetings where we brought directors of every department," Helfrich said. "But there was little attendance and few questions. So this year we decided to change the meetings and have them more focused on the different aspects (of government)."
Wednesday's town hall followed a City Council-run meeting last month regarding the controversial appointment of Blanda Nace as chief opportunity development officer. The decision brought widespread condemnation for what many said was a lack of transparency.
Those critics included York City Councilman Michael Buckingham, who on Thursday said the administration seems to be making notable progress.
"I applaud the mayor," Buckingham said. "They're absolutely trying to reach out on a more efficient basis. The mayor's always had his Monday morning videos, but to reach out to the community as a whole like this is a really good step."
Monday's town hall solely focused on community development; nothing more.
In Helfrich's eyes, these focused meetings — not City Council meetings, but between the administration and residents — are more effective because they can engage residents' specific interests in a detailed manner.
The crowd of just less than 40 on Monday listened as Helfrich and other city officials touched on topics ranging from the Community Ecosystem Initiative to health and housing services.
Philip Given, acting director of community and economic development, announced that beginning next January, all city documents, including the job postings that are now sent out in a weekly newsletter, will be offered in Spanish.
Helfrich revealed he will soon be hiring two more neighborhood coordinators and divide the city into 16 segments for the ecosystem initiative. Coordinators and volunteers will take on segments one by one to ask residents and businesses how to improve the neighborhoods while informing them about services such as mentoring, prenatal care and career training.
The city will begin offering free HIV and STD screenings from nurse practitioners at its clinic located at 435 W. Philadelphia St., said disease intervention specialist Kim Hall. HIV, syphilis, gonorrhea and chlamydia are all included in the tests.
The bureau is working with York Fresh Food Farms Mobile Market to help provide local corner stores, especially in impoverished areas of the city, with fresh produce.
James Crosby, deputy direct of housing services, emphasized the importance of community involvement in talking about housing needs, as the city is now preparing its five-year consolidated plan to submit to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The plan will act as a blueprint for future expenditures related to housing.
As the 2020 census is approaches, Helfrich encouraged residents to participate to ensure the city can receive as many allocated funds as possible, acknowledging the city will work to mitigate fear among immigrants who often don't participate.
All of the ideas were welcomed by the crowd, who also applauded lower-level employees involved with the efforts. Soon-to-retire York City Police Chief Troy Bankert received the most praise as he detailed his work on the Group Violence Initiative.
Lou Rivera, a Democratic candidate for York City Council, said Wednesday's town hall was "the best meeting I have ever attended in City Council chambers."
"The citizens of York are excited for change, and by the administration engaging city residents in these conversations, Yorkers feel as though they are a part of the solution," he said.
Rivera agreed with Helfrich that focusing on one topic during a town hall meeting is a more efficient way of covering the complexities of a single city department. But he also acknowledged not every meeting is going to be as pleasant, as residents react differently to new issues.
The mayor on Wednesday laid out plans for three more public meetings over the next couple months.
At 6 p.m. Wednesday, July 31, in City Council chambers, the city is holding a public meeting alongside Columbia Gas to discuss the gas meters the company has been installing in front of homes in the city's historic district.
Next month, officials have planned a town hall dedicated to the city's five federally designated opportunity zones, which allow investors to receive tax incentives to invest in low-income neighborhoods.
And in September, the city will hold an economic development town hall that will be similar to Wednesday's. The administration will be revealing some important economic initiatives and talking about the Redevelopment Authority, Helfrich said.
Neither town hall has an official time and date.
— Logan Hullinger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter at @LoganHullYD