YORK COUNTY

Petitioners argue that Michael Helfrich's 2022 oath delay disqualifies him from office

Matt Enright
York Dispatch

A group of York City voters seeking to oust Mayor Michael Helfrich due to a delay in taking his oath of office last year presented their arguments — again — as part of an appeal in Commonwealth Court.

The brief, filed Jan. 3, argues that Common Pleas Judge Clyde Vedder erred in his lower court ruling that Helfrich's unavailability while he was away from the city "tolled" the clock, effectively allowing him to take his oath when he returned in January 2022.

Instead, the group of residents argue that the plain language of the Third Class City Code says that if a mayor does not take the oath of office within 14 days of the City Council's reorganizational meeting, a vacancy is deemed to have occurred.

"In this case, there is no ambiguity in the Code — nor is there any factual dispute — that Helfrich failed to qualify for office; therefore, a vacancy is deemed to exist," the brief, filed by attorneys Justin Tomevi and Christopher Naylor, reads.

York City Mayor Michael Helfrich photographs Keynote Speaker Rep. Carol Hill-Evans, who represents the 95th Legislative District, as she speaks during the Lincoln Charter School Annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Dinner at the school in York City, Sunday, Jan. 15, 2023. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Following the 2021 election, Helfrich took his oath of office for his second term Jan. 24, 2022 — 20 days after the City Council's organizational meeting on Jan. 4. He was initially on vacation and subsequently attended the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Washington, D.C.

"Helfrich’s failure to appear at the organizational meeting of the York City Council to demonstrate his qualifications for office and to take the oath of office, renders him disqualified," the brief reads.

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Helfrich and his attorney, Glenn Smith, did not return requests for comment.

The oath of office issue emerged last January, shortly after Helfrich missed the City Council's reorganization meeting. After soliciting legal opinions on the matter, the council members 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 people — including former City Council President Henry Nixon and other notable residents — asking for Helfrich's removal and for a temporary replacement to be named by the court.

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Vedder's ruling concluded that the issue of timing was de minimis, or a minor concern that didn't necessitate Helfrich's removal.

“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.”

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

The petitioners' attorneys appealed that ruling, arguing that the timing issue is cut and dried.

"Applying the uncontested facts to the clear statutory language therefore compels the result that Helfrich failed to timely qualify for office, that he is thereby disqualified from holding office, and that a deemed vacancy exists," the brief reads. "The lower court’s Order and Opinion to the contrary — relying solely on equitable principles — was error and should be reversed."

With the electors' petition filed, Helfrich has 30 days from the Jan. 3 filing date — or Feb. 2 — to submit his own brief. At that point, the Commonwealth Curt will determine if a decision can be reached through the briefs or if oral arguments are necessary.

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

Editor's note: The headline on this story has been corrected to show that Helfrich took the oath of office in January 2022.