Lawsuit filed to remove Michael Helfrich as York City's mayor over oath

Matt Enright
York Dispatch

Eighteen people, including former York City officials, filed a lawsuit Monday alleging that Mayor Michael Helfrich is ineligible for office and asking for his immediate removal.

The plaintiffs, who called for President Judge Maria Musti Cook to make an appointment to fill the position, include former Council President Henry Nixon, former Councilor Judy Ritter-Dickson and former mayoral candidate Shareef Hameed.

At issue was Helfrich's failure to take the oath of office quickly enough after the City Council's organizational meeting on Jan. 4. Helfrich was on vacation at the time; instead, he took the oath on Jan. 24.

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

"I really don't think that anybody credible believes that there's any merit in this," Helfrich said Monday, adding that he has not yet been served with the lawsuit.

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That issue has been hotly debated in recent months. The City Council ultimately referred the matter to York County District Attorney Dave Sunday and state Attorney General Josh Shapiro.

Kyle King, a spokesman for the DA's office, said the matter is being reviewed.

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

The City Council cited that 2018 decision in its original referral, noting that Sunday's "office’s position was that the plaintiffs had legal standing to sue."

It has been the position of York City assistant solicitor Jason Sabol that the mayor only needs to take one oath of office, that being during their first term. Sabol previously told The York Dispatch that, based on his interpretation of the city's code, the city's mayorship runs for four years and until a successor is appointed.

"That oath doesn't expire magically at some point," he said.

However, the City Council obtained a second legal opinion 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.

None of the council officials shared where they got the second legal opinion. Nor does the lawsuit filed Monday identify a source for its interpretation of local and third-class city codes.

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This lawsuit reads: "Respondent's failure to attend the York City Council's reorganizational meeting, failure to be inaugurated, failure to timely take the oath of office and failure to submit the required affidavit result on the Respondent being disqualified to hold the office of Mayor of York City thereby creating a vacancy within."

Nixon, who served as council president through the end of 2021, had sharp words for Helfrich during a meeting in which the council voted to overturn Helfrich's veto of the 2021 fiscal budget over what American Rescue Plan Act funding would be used for.

Nixon, who did not respond to a request for comment Monday, said during that meeting that communication had been at best strained and at worst nonexistent during his time on the council. 

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"This is not due to Council's disrespect or ignorance of the mayor or the administration, but rather the dictatorial attitude of the mayor," Nixon said previously. "Friction has existed in the policies of this administration and Council since the very beginning." 

Hameed ran against Helfrich in the 2021 election. Helfrich won reelection.

Council President Sandie Walker said she had no comment Monday. Ritter-Dickson did not respond to a request for comment.

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