Helfrich oath of office case continues to wind through the appeals process

Matt Enright
York Dispatch

The group of York City residents seeking to have Mayor Michael Helfrich ousted from elected office has until Jan. 3 to present arguments as the case winds its way through the appeals process.

Justin Tomevi, who represents the residents, said the Commonwealth Court granted an extension to the briefing schedule.

"[The filing] will address whether the mayor position is deemed vacant, given the failure to conduct the oath within the statutorily prescribed deadline," Tomevi said.

Once the filing is submitted, Helfrich's lawyers will have 30 days to submit their own arguments. The Commonwealth Court will then determine whether oral arguments are required or if a ruling can be made based on the briefs.

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Attorney Glenn Smith, who represents Helfrich, said he had no issue with the delay in the briefing schedule and remains confident that an earlier ruling in the mayor's favor will be upheld.

"It's just delaying the inevitable," Smith said.

York City mayor Michael Helfrich speaking at the light up York festivities on Friday Dec. 2, 2022.

The original challenge to Helfrich's position as mayor was based on a disagreement over whether he'd taken the oath of office in a timely fashion after his 2021 election. Helfrich was on vacation at the time of the City Council's meeting on Jan. 4, 2022, and took the oath after returning from the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 24.

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.

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

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 statute's requirement that the oath be taken within 14 days. Based on Vedder's ruling, Helfrich being out of town stopped the clock until he was next available in York City.

“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.”

The petitioners subsequently appealed the ruling to the Commonwealth Court. A motion to dismiss by Helfrich's attorney was denied by the court in October.

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