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Tentative court date set in Helfrich oath of office lawsuit appeal

Matt Enright
York Dispatch

A lawsuit challenging York City Mayor Michael Helfrich's eligibility for his position now has a tentative court date.

As of now, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania will hear oral arguments June 5 — although that is still a tentative date, according to attorney Justin Tomevi.

Attorneys for both sides say they are looking forward to airing out their arguments in court.

"We remain optimistic that [the appeals court] will apply the law as written and grant my clients’ requested relief," said Tomevi, who represents the 18 electors who sued to have Helfrich removed from office over the timing of his oath of office.

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Attorney Glenn Smith, who has represented Helfrich in the matter since the lawsuit was filed last year, shared similar sentiments: "We are looking forward to the opportunity to address the court and answer any questions they may have as to Mayor Helfrich's compliance with all applicable laws and why the appeal should be denied."

Helfrich did not respond to a request for comment.

Mayor Michael Helfrich speaking alongside Police Commissioner Michael Muldrow, on left, at the York City Police Department promotion ceremony in York on Thursday, March 2, 2023.

Concerns over Helfrich's taking of the oath of office began shortly after the beginning of 2022. 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.

The third-class city code, under which York City operates except when it is governed by its own code, mandates that mayors take the oath within 14 days of the council's organizational meeting or be ruled ineligible for office.

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Subsequently, a petition was filed to the Court of Common Pleas in April by 18 people asking for Helfrich's removal and for a temporary replacement to be named by the court. The petitioners included former City Council President Henry Nixon and former council members Toni Smith and Judy Ritter-Dickson, as well as former city official Shilvosky Buffaloe and Shareef Hameed, Helfrich's 2021 opponent in the mayoral election.

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After a hearing in April, Judge Clyde Vedder ruled in June that while the third-class city code would apply, the timing of the oath was "de minimis," or a minor concern that didn't rise to the level of requiring Helfrich's removal. He also "tolled" the time between the reorganizational meeting and the oath, ruling that the first day Helfrich could have taken the oath was Jan. 24, the day he took it.

“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 electors appealed Vedder's ruling to the Commonwealth Court. After a motion to dismiss by Smith was rejected, the two sides filed opposing briefs.

Tomevi argued that Vedder erred in his ruling and that the plain language of the third-class city code mandates that if a mayor does not take the oath within 14 days of the city council's reorganizational meeting, they're ineligible for office without exception.

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In his brief, Smith argued that Vedder was correct in his ruling, stating that Helfrich, who won against Hameed in 2021, could not succeed himself as mayor — thus making the issue moot. The York City code also mandates that the mayor serves for four years until a successor qualifies without mentioning a timeline for the vote, Smith wrote.

Oral arguments by both sides will be heard once the court date is finalized.

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