'Each side is claiming victimization': Tensions continue to mount at York City Council

Matt Enright
York Dispatch

The York City Council has introduced resolutions that would begin to spend American Rescue Plan Act money — but not the amount approved by the city's business administrators.

At its meeting Feb. 15, the council began the process to give the Rex/Laurel Fire Station and Penn Market $750,000 each from ARPA funding. But the business administration department only recommended $325,000 be spent on each building. 

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The city received $35.3 million in ARPA funding. Those funds must be obligated by Dec. 31, 2024, and spent by Dec. 31, 2026.

Interim Business Administrator Kim Robertson said her department had recommended a smaller amount for the projects.

"Even the agenda item said $325,000, but the actual ordinance says $750,000," Robertson said of the initial agenda. "There's definitely some confusion between what the ordinance said and what the line item said along the line." 

A screenshot of the original City Council agenda item provided by Kim Robertson. Here, Rex/Laurel and Penn St. Market would have received $325,000 each.

That confusion is something Mayor Michael Helfrich pointed out during the City Council meeting, alleging that the agenda item violated the council's rules and the Sunshine Act because the amounts did not match. 

While the council's rules state that agenda items can be altered by committee, Helfrich said committees have not been meeting. Therefore, he argued, only the original agenda item should be placed on the council agenda.

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"This is not the agenda item submitted by the business administrator. It has been altered by a third party and is represented as and submitted by business administration," Helfrich said. "We can't have individuals just altering things submitted to council and then saying this came from administration."

In response, Council President Sandie Walker told Helfrich that committee meetings have been put on hold because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

"Nothing's changed behind closed doors," Walker said.

"You're now in violation of your own codes and Robert's Rules of Order," Helfrich responded, at the meeting. "This is how you're going to play it. No concern for actual rules." 

Paula Knudsen Burke, attorney for the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press, said via email that some agenda items could be changed under the Sunshine Act for a number of reasons. 

That includes before a meeting if the change is deemed "de minimus" — meaning with no expenditure of funds nor requiring the initiation of a contract. If initiated by the governing body, the reason must be announced before official action, at least 24 hours before the meeting, and the meeting minutes must reflect the change.

It still wasn't clear Tuesday whether the council had erred in changing the amounts. However, the council members didn't formally approve the funding, regardless. That final vote could happen at the next meeting on March 1.

Both Rex/Laurel Fire Station and Penn Market received Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program grants in 2020. Penn Market received $1.5 million to renovate the market, while Rex/Laurel received $1.5 million as part of an overall grant request to renovate four fire stations.

Helfrich sought to strike a more optimistic tone.

"Government is an election of different representatives with different opinions, different minds, and they have to publicly debate things," Helfrich said. "There are fundamental differences that must be debated." 

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His remarks came after a supplemental agenda in which the City Council introduced a motion amending the 2022 budget to spend $2.7 million on various public safety initiatives, including a police cadet program, "credible messengers" to help reduce gun violence and a second Group Violence Initiative team

Although Helfrich and the City Council have a difference of opinion as to how ARPA funding should be spent, it's not something that the two entities cannot get past, the mayor said. He thanked the council for introducing that bill.

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"We have differences of opinion, and we are trying to work them out," Helfrich said. "For me, process is extremely important." 

In response, Walker spoke about a meeting held with various officials, including herself, Helfrich, council member Betsy Buckingham and others, as well as laying out a timeline for the distribution of ARPA funding. 

"This meeting I believe was productive. There were things we agreed upon, there were things we did not agree upon," Walker said. "It is my understanding that we will continue these discussions, and as long as these discussions are productive, there is no need for a mediator."

In public comment, a speaker criticized what he saw as a "roiling" conflict between the legislative and executive branches of York City government.

"Each side is claiming victimization," Donald Hake said, at the outset of the meeting. "However, the true victim is neither. The true victims are the constituents who pay you to make the conditions of our residency better."

As the bills were introduced during the Feb. 15 meeting, the next opportunity the council will have to vote on them is at the March 1 meeting.

Meanwhile, the office of District Attorney Dave Sunday confirmed Tuesday that it is now looking into oath of office concerns raised by a York City official. That came nearly two weeks after a news release from the City Council announcing that it had turned over a question about the timing of the mayor's oath.

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