Oath of office lawsuit: York City Council won't let solicitor defend mayor in hearing

Matt Enright
York Dispatch

The York City Council will not allow the city solicitor to represent Mayor Michael Helfrich during a hearing this week in a lawsuit challenging his right to hold the office.

The suit argues that since Helfrich did not take an oath of office within 14 days of the current City Council's first meeting, the office should be considered vacated and an appointment must be made by the president judge of the York County Court of Common Pleas.

Helfrich's position — based on advice from city solicitor Jason Sabol — is that the city's own code does not specify a timeline for when an oath of office must be taken.

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The hearing will be Thursday before Judge Clyde Vedder. If he rules against Helfrich, President Judge Maria Musti Cook will need to make an appointment to the vacancy, pending further legal action.

The York City Council on Tuesday tabled until next week an item that would have allowed Sabol to represent Helfrich. Since the hearing is this week, the mayor will need to hire outside counsel.

In comments after the meeting, council members said they needed more information before approving a waiver of the conflict of interest that would've allowed the solicitor to represent Helfrich.

There are "a lot of unanswered questions when it comes to conflict of interest," Council President Sandie Walker said after the meeting. "This is a serious issue, and council members need more information." 

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When Helfrich attempted to speak about the motion during the time designated for comment from administration, he was interrupted by Walker, who told him that the motion would be discussed in committee and that if he kept talking, she would adjourn the meeting.

Helfrich kept talking, and Walker adjourned the meeting. 

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"Now we have to spend taxpayer money on an attorney because our own attorney cannot represent a position that is his position," Helfrich said. "Now, because of council's actions, the city has now lost money. We are now going to have to go and hire outside counsel because they have not provided a waiver to allow solicitor [Jason] Sabol to represent his own position in a hearing on Thursday." 

A woman in the audience attempted to give public comment but was rejected by Walker, who told her she could discuss it during the committee meeting next Wednesday.

After the meeting, the woman in the audience expressed concern over being prevented from giving public comment and about city money being used for outside counsel. She was interrupted by a man in the audience, and the two argued. Neither identified themselves.

"We were already at the end of the meeting, the mayor wanted to bring up something that was already referred to council," Walker said after the meeting. "It's our meeting, and so if we'd already referred it to committee, then it's going to be discussed in committee." 

The lawsuit was filed April 11 by 18 petitioners, including some familiar figures in the city: 

  • Carla Evette Freeland had been involved in a complaint in 2017 that sought to bar Helfrich from becoming mayor, relating to the definition of "infamous crimes." Helfrich pleaded guilty to felony drug possession in 1991 when he was arrested with a man carrying psychedelic drugs.
  • Toni Smith had also been a part of that lawsuit. A former council member, she lost to Helfrich in 2011 when he launched a write-in campaign against her. Smith raised the drug possession issue during that campaign as well.
  • Henry Nixon and Judy Ritter-Dickson are former council members. Nixon blasted Helfrich in his last meeting before the end of his term in December, blaming Helfrich for the strained relationship between Helfrich and the council.
  • Lois Garnett had been a part of the York City school board before losing reelection in 2019.
  • Shareef Hameed ran against Helfrich in 2021. When reached for comment, Hameed said his involvement was nothing personal. He joined the petition because of concerns over the law, he said.

Former City Council member Cameron Texter, although his name is not on the 2022 lawsuit, also raised the issue in a lengthy email to the council in January. The York Dispatch was included on that email.

Back in 2011, Texter helped Smith campaign against Helfrich, writing a flyer that noted the mayor's prior conviction.

Smith was taken to trial in 2011 over funding a political action committee that distributed the flyer, violating the election code. A judge admitted her to the Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition Program for first-time offenders in 2012, allowing her to complete 35 hours of community service and resolve the case against her without admitting guilt or facing trial.

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