Challenge to York City Mayor Michael Helfrich's ability to serve moves forward

Matt Enright
York Dispatch

The waiting game begins on the matter of York City Mayor Michael Helfrich's eligibility for office now that his attorney filed his legal defense with a state appellate court.

In the latest filing, Helfrich's attorney Glenn Smith argued that Common Pleas Judge Clyde Vedder was correct in his ruling last year 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.

A group of York City voters seeking to oust Helfrich recently appealed the case to Commonwealth Court. They've argued that Helfrich's failure to take the oath the office within 14 days of the City Council's reorganizational meeting disqualified him from serving.

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

"We trust the Commonwealth Court will view the applicable law as it is written and not allow for the creation of new exceptions, which would be the sole purview of the Legislature," Justin Tomevi, the attorney representing the 18 petitioners, said Monday.

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

MORE:'It was beyond help': Fire claims life of Fairview Township woman

MORE:Pa. House control will likely be decided by special elections this week

In a brief filed Friday, Smith argued that the code the petitioners cited in trying to oust Helfrich only pertains to those taking an office for the first time. Smith wrote that Helfrich — who won his second term in 2021 against one of the petitioners, Shareef Hameed — could not succeed himself.

In addition, Smith noted that York City adopted its own code, which mentions that the mayor shall serve for four years, until his successor qualifies. It does not mention anything about a timeline for the oath to be taken, he wrote.

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 when that meeting took place and subsequently attended the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Washington, D.C.

>> Please consider subscribing to support local journalism. 

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 then-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.

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 at the time. “To remove Mr. Helfrich from office would ignore the clear determination of the electorate and result in the election being an empty ritual.”

Now the Commonwealth Court will determine whether the appeal requires oral arguments or if the court can rule based on the submitted briefs.

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