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After two years, Helfrich, York City Council can't get along

Logan Hullinger
York Dispatch
York City Mayor Michael Helfrich talks about traditions, illustrated by a story about his hat that was made by his aunt in Germany 44 years ago, that he continues to wear every year, during Light Up York in York City, Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Political divisions and distrust between Mayor Michael Helfrich and York City Council members are undermining city government's ability to make policy, city officials acknowledged. 

Helfrich has clashed with the City Council repeatedly since taking office in 2018. Often, the blowup stalls the actual policy he was championing. 

"(The lack of transparency) has a tremendous impact," council President Henry Nixon said, echoing a common complaint lodged against the mayor. "I don't know that we can (change that). It is completely in the mayor's hands if he wants to change how he does business."

More:York City fire chief's wife begs council to waive residency mandate

Just this past week, the council refused to take up a request from Helfrich to waive the city's residency requirement for fire Chief Chad Deardorff. Council members groused because Helfrich knew in September that Deardorff didn't intend to move into the city, but the mayor failed to disclose that to the council until January.  

The council's objections threaten Deardorff's job.

Helfrich acknowledged Thursday that he's faced a barrage from the City Council throughout the first two years of his term. Helfrich said the attacks are purely political in nature — potentially a coordinated effort to make him less inclined to seek a second term in 2022.  

“Yes, it certainly has made an impact," Helfrich said. "And I wouldn’t be surprised if that is the intent.”

Helfrich said he doesn't know if he'll run in 2022.

“I have little doubt that the majority of complaints made against me by council are political,” Helfrich said.

Several members of the York City Council were close allies of former Mayor Kim Bracey, whom Helfrich ousted from office in 2018 while running as a Republican.

The council's biggest complaints have focused on Helfrich's hiring practices, which at times have taken place without City Council input because they weren't officially director positions.

That includes the appointment of Blanda Nace as chief opportunity development officer and Philip Given as acting director of community and economic development last year. The council has delayed holding a vote on whether to approve Given as official director.

Council Vice President Sandie Walker said Helfrich was a hypocrite for dismissing allegations of transparency issues within his administration, asserting he raised similar concerns when he was on the council during Bracey's administration. 

"This has been an ongoing issue," Walker said. "If you're the mayor, it's your responsibility to communicate with council regardless of if you think that council is going to be receptive or not. It's your job."

When accused of poor hiring practices, however, Helfrich has used the Bracey administration as a counterargument. 

For example, last week, he noted Bracey allowed former York City Police Chief Wes Kahley to live outside the city for seven years without backlash from the council. He has also noted that acting directors — appointed without council confirmation — often stayed in the job for years within Bracey's administration. 

It's been less than a month since Councilman Lou Rivera was sworn in. Already, he's witnessed the contentious relationship between Helfrich and the city's legislative body. 

"It's volatile," Rivera said. "I don't think decisions that affect our community should be based on personality differences. It starts to affect the community."

Rivera said that both the council and the administration have to make changes to effectively govern the city. All of the remaining council members, however, have said Helfrich is the one who is in need of improvement. 

For his part, Helfrich maintained that the political strife is not undercutting his administration. 

"Do they give me 100% of the changes that I think will make the city run better?  No," Helfrich wrote late Thursday in an email. "Has it dramatically hindered the improvements we are making in how the York City government serves the people? No."

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