York City mayor: Contracts with controller's nonprofit won't advance in current form

Aimee Ambrose
York Dispatch

Two pulled city contracts with a nonprofit agency won’t return for consideration, at least not as signed.

The $317,470 agreements with The Program, It’s About Change were withdrawn from the York City Council’s agenda shortly before the March 21 meeting began, before the council could approve them.

They went under review amid apparent concerns about a conflict of interest. York City's elected controller, AliceAnne Frost, had signed the documents twice as both the city’s financial watchdog and as CEO of The Program at the time.

York City Controller AliceAnne Frost

“The existing contracts that were signed are no longer legally binding,” Mayor Michael Helfrich said in an interview Wednesday, adding that they would not go back to the City Council in their current form.

At Tuesday night's City Council meeting, Council President Sandie Walker said she hadn't received any more information from Helfrich's administration about the matter following The York Dispatch's report about Frost's roles.

Terms called for the organization to partner with the city’s Group Violence Intervention initiative, providing outreach services and some staffing through this year. The Harrisburg-based Program specializes in reentry and housing services for former prison inmates.

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The money — $225,470 in one contract and $92,000 in the other — was set to come out of federal American Rescue Plan Act funds allocated to the York City Police Department’s budget.

On March 30, a week and a half after the contracts were pulled, The Program announced that Frost had resigned from the organization after six years. She later told The York Dispatch she’s preparing to start a new job in an executive role at another nonprofit organization.

AliceAnne Frost's name appears twice on several contracts, both in her roles as city controller and as CEO of The Program, It's About Change.

Frost stepping down as CEO apparently helped resolve conflict concerns. The result also meant the pulled contracts are canceled since she’s no longer heading the organization.

That doesn’t mean the deal itself is dead. The contracts could be redrafted and reintroduced at another time, Helfrich indicated.

“Now that any question of conflict of interest has been overcome, there’s no problem contracting with The Program if everyone decides that’s the way to go forward,” he said.

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So far, though, the GVI’s governance board hasn’t made a decision to do so, city administration hasn’t offered a new contract, and The Program’s current leadership hasn’t accepted one, he said.

Helfrich said a lot of eyes looked over the contracts when they were first drafted and went through an initial review process, and no flags were raised then. Those eyes apparently included those of members of the GVI board, which includes Helfrich, Police Commissioner Michael Muldrow, staff from the York County District Attorney’s Office and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Harrisburg, and other community partners.

The contract for the $225,470 in ARPA funds was signed in January. Frost and Liliana Fisher, as The Program’s CEO and vice president respectively, signed first on Jan. 23, the document shows. Muldrow followed on Jan. 25, and the mayor on Jan. 30.

Helfrich said he saw Frost had signed the document once when he put pen to paper. No flags were waved then, so, “I didn’t think twice about it,” he said.

Generally, when he signs contracts, Helfrich said they then get sent to the controller’s office for final signatures. His office won’t hear anything more then unless the controller asks for more documentation.

In this case, Frost signed the ARPA agreement a second time as city controller two days later, on Feb. 1, the document shows.

When asked who would have raised a red flag on the situation, Helfrich paused for a long moment to reflect on the question.

Then he responded.

“This is where I have to protect the taxpayers and not give you a direct answer,” he said.

Mayor Michael Helfrich talking to the newest officers at the York City Police Department swearing in ceremony in York on Friday, Jan.6, 2023.

The York Dispatch repeatedly asked Frost and Fisher for comment on the potential conflict of interest issue in recent weeks. In an interview last week, Frost said she was fully transparent about her role with the nonprofit.

On Wednesday, in response to issues raised during the interview with Helfrich, the Dispatch once again sought comment from Frost and Fisher. They both sought the Dispatch's questions in writing, but neither had responded as of early Wednesday evening.

Helfrich explained earlier in the conversation that, as mayor, he can’t always tell everything to everybody. He can’t put the city in a situation that invites a lawsuit and costs taxpayer money.

Previous contracts: The contracts pulled in March weren’t the city’s first agreements with The Program.

Two others were approved last year.

The council passed one in June where The Program received $60,000 in Community Development Block Grant money to provide workforce reentry and housing services over two years.

With the grant coming from the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department, the city first sent a letter to the agency in 2021, seeking an exception from conflict rules due to Frost’s dual roles.

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HUD saw a conflict existed but granted the exception since the agreement would further the grant’s purposes, though on condition that Frost give assurances she would recuse herself as controller from CDBG funds going to The Program.

Five months after the council approved that agreement, the city implemented the other contract in November 2022.

Terms directed $45,000 in ARPA funds to The Program for the GVI initiative covering the last two months of the year. Since the amount was below a certain threshold, the contract didn’t require City Council approval.

City Controller AliceAnne Frost speaks to the York City Council during a committee meeting March 1.

Frost, as The Program’s CEO, Fisher, Muldrow and Helfrich all signed Nov. 7, the document shows. Frost signed again Nov. 8 as city controller.

Leading up to the new contracts this year, Helfrich explained a request-for-proposal was issued to seek bidders for providing outreach services as part of the GVI.

Services included employing a trauma responder, an assistant project manager and two credible messengers — people who’d been in the criminal justice system and would intervene with juveniles to help them make choices that don’t lead to prison.

Staff writer Noel Miller contributed to this report.

— Reach Aimee Ambrose at aambrose@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @aimee_TYD.