Court hearing set in York City Mayor Helfrich's eligibility case

David Weissman
York Dispatch
York City Mayor Michael Helfrich gives a speech after taking the oath of office during a ceremony outside City Hall Tuesday, Jan 2, 2017. Helfrich is the 25th mayor of York. Bill Kalina photo

Just two weeks after his swearing-in ceremony, Michael Helfrich, York City's new mayor, will head to court to defend his right to remain in office.

Six York City residents, including a longtime former city councilwoman, filed a complaint in York County court Dec. 28 seeking to bar Helfrich from holding the office of mayor.

They also asked the judge to grant a preliminary injunction to prevent him from holding office while the matter is litigated, and Common Pleas Court Judge Richard Renn scheduled a hearing on that request for 2:30 p.m. Jan. 16, according to court filings.

At issue is a standard laid out in the Pennsylvania Constitution: "No person convicted of embezzlement of public moneys, bribery, perjury or other infamous crime shall be ... capable of holding any office of trust or profit in this Commonwealth."

Felonies have been considered infamous crimes in this state, and Helfrich pleaded guilty to a felony in 1991.

"Mr. Helfrich is barred from holding the position he was elected to," said attorney Karen Comery, who is representing the six plaintiffs.

More:York Mayor Helfrich takes oath, names interim police chief

More:Six York City residents challenge Helfrich's mayoral eligibility

A former York County president judge previously ruled that Helfrich's crime didn't prohibit him from serving as a city councilman. That ruling was handed down after the now-former York City Mayor Kim Bracey challenged Helfrich's election as councilman in 2011.

He had defeated incumbent Toni Smith, who is one of the plaintiffs in this case, by just six votes in a write-in campaign.

Previous ruling: Renn noted in his order scheduling the hearing that both parties are expected to address the court's previous decision on Bracey's challenge.

Helfrich, who was sworn into office Tuesday, Jan. 2, has said he will focus on York City and let his attorney, Chuck Hobbs, focus on the legal filings against him.

In his preliminary objections, Hobbs argued that the case should be dismissed because York County District Attorney Dave Sunday — also sworn into office Jan. 2 — hasn't decided whether his office would pursue a challenge to Helfrich's eligibility.

Previous District Attorney Tom Kearney had recused himself because he represented Helfrich when he pleaded guilty to the felony drug case in 1991.

Now 47, Helfrich was 21 years old when he pleaded guilty to felony drug possession, after he was arrested with a man carrying psychedelic drugs.

Helfrich spent 45 days in York County Prison and was released after his time-served plea when the judge determined “he was not the player in this.”

Petition: Some York County residents have initiated a campaign to urge Gov. Tom Wolf to pardon Helfrich for his crimes, thus avoiding the need for further litigation.

Michael Wascovich, a Hellam Borough councilman and declared Democratic candidate for state representative, started a petition Thursday, Jan. 4, and it garnered nearly 200 signatures within the first couple hours.

"The people who voted for (Helfrich) knew that he had a criminal record and that he served his punishment," the petition reads. "We want Governor Tom Wolf to issue a pardon to Michael Helfrich so that he can finally lead York City and put to rest these lawsuits that are wasting the court's time.