York City Council refers Helfrich oath of office concerns to AG's office

Matt Enright
York Dispatch

The dispute over York City Mayor Michael Helfrich's oath of office escalated Friday as the City Council turned the matter over to county and state prosecutors.

Last month, the council raised concerns that Helfrich did not take an oath of office in  time to qualify as mayor. Helfrich was on vacation at the time and did not appear at the council's Jan. 4 reorganization meeting. Instead, he took the oath on Jan. 24.

On Friday, the City Council announced in a written statement that it received two conflicting legal opinions on the matter. Subsequently, it turned over the matter to the offices of Attorney General Josh Shapiro and York County District Attorney Dave Sunday.

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According to the City Council, the first opinion — reflecting the position of City Solicitor Jason Sabol — was that the mayor only needs to take one oath of office during their beginning term. The second, the source of which Council President Sandie Walker declined to identify, was that the mayor must comply with the third-class city code and take an oath of office within 14 days of the council's first reorganizational meeting.

"Our ordinance is clear in that the mayor's term runs for four years and until a successor is appointed," Sabol told The York Dispatch last month. "Obviously in this case, no successor has been qualified; the mayor won with 80% of the vote and was already sworn in. That oath doesn't expire magically at some point." 

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In 2018, Sunday declined to challenge Helfrich's right to serve after six plaintiffs filed a lawsuit seeking to bar Helfrich over an arrest and guilty plea in 1991 for felony drug dealing.

The City Council cited that 2018 decision in a news release Friday, noting that Sunday's "office’s position was that the plaintiffs had legal standing to sue." It's not clear whether this means the council plans to pursue its own legal action in this circumstance.

York City Mayor Michael Helfrich speaks during a Community Violence Awareness Event at Lincoln Charter School Monday, Dec. 6, 2021. The event was sponsored by York City Police, the City of York, and The Movement. Bill Kalina photo

In an email, D.A.'s Office spokesperson Kyle King said he could not confirm whether the office received an official complaint from the council. Likewise, the attorney general's office did not respond to a request for comment.

In an interview Friday, Helfrich said he believed the council could have reviewed the opinions and drawn their own conclusions. Instead, he said, it was causing an unnecessary and confusing disturbance.

 "I followed the city's legal advisers," he said. "I'm not sure who the council is following, because they were given the same legal advice that I was."

Walker declined to say where the council had gotten the second legal opinion from.

"It puts us in a situation where we can't just rely on different legal opinions," she said. "The district attorney, that's what they do. The attorney general, that's what we do."

Mr. Sandy's Homeless Veterans Center director Sandie Walker serves lunch to Country Meadows Retirement Community resident and Navy veteran Richard Martin, 96, at the veteran's assistance center in York City Friday, March 29, 2019. Country Meadows staff served lunch to community veterans at its visiting residents at the center, named after Sandie's father, Vietnam Veteran Sandy Walker. The visit coincided with National Vietnam War Veterans Day. Bill Kalina photo

— Reach Matt Enright via email at menright@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @Matthew_Enright.