Oath of office case against York City Mayor Michael Helfrich continues

Matt Enright
York Dispatch

The York City residents who attempted to remove Mayor Michael Helfrich from office will have an opportunity to take their case to a statewide appellate court.

Earlier this year, a local Common Pleas judge denied a request to remove the mayor over allegations that he failed to take the oath of office in a timely manner after his election to a second term in 2021. The effort led by 18 York City residents, including several former officials, ultimately worked its way to Commonwealth Court.

Helfrich's attorney, Glenn Smith, asked the appeals court to dismiss the challenge altogether — a request that was denied.

York City Mayor Michael Helfrich discusses the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act and how it will likely impact the community at York City Hall in York City, Monday, Sept. 26, 2022. Dawn J. Sagert/The York Dispatch

Smith, reached for comment Tuesday night, said he was disappointed in the denial but remained confident about the ultimate outcome of the case.

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The residents seeking to oust Helfrich now have until Dec. 12 to file new arguments in Commonwealth Court.

"It will address whether the mayor position is deemed vacant, given the failure to conduct the oath within the statutorily prescribed deadline," Justin Tomevi, who represents the group, said.

Once that brief is filed, Helfrich's attorney will have 30 days to file briefs in favor of his client. At that point, the Commonwealth Court will determine whether oral arguments are required or if a ruling can be made based on the briefs filed by both sides.

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Concerns over the timing of Helfrich's oath of office began earlier this year. By third class city code, mayors must take the oath of office within 14 days of the council's reorganizational meeting. 

At the time of the Council's meeting on Jan. 4, Helfrich was on vacation. On the advice of City Solicitor Jason Sabol, he did not take an oath of office until after he had returned from the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 24.

That raised the eyebrows of some, including the City Council. After soliciting legal opinions on the matter, they forwarded it to District Attorney Dave Sunday and Attorney General Josh Shapiro. Subsequently, a petition was filed to the Court of Common Pleas in April by 18 petitioners asking for Helfrich's removal and for President Judge Maria Musti Cook to name a temporary replacement.

The petitioners include former City Council President Henry Nixon; former council members Antoinetta Smith and Judy Ritter-Dickson; and 2021 independent mayoral candidate Shareef Hameed.

York City Council President Henry Nixon, right, looks on as Vice President Sandie Walker speaks during a York City Council town hall meeting at Logos Academy in York City, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2018. Dawn J. Sagert photo

In his ruling in June, Common Pleas Judge Clyde Vedder acknowledged that the third class city code does apply to York City but found that Helfrich's unavailability to take the oath of office “tolled” the time period of 14 days, stopping the clock until Helfrich was next available in York City, Jan. 24.

“Even if we did not toll the running of the statutory provision, we would not disenfranchise him for what is so trifling as possibly being three days late,” Vedder wrote. “To remove Mr. Helfrich from office would ignore the clear determination of the electorate and result in the election being an empty ritual.”

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