York City Council candidates reassess relationship with Mayor Michael Helfrich

Matt Enright
York Dispatch

York City Council's relationship with Mayor Michael Helfrich is a key question in this spring's Democratic primary.

The only incumbent running, Vice President Edquina Washington, offered a defense of how City Council has worked with administration while saying it's important to work with the mayor.

"We need to understand that it's important to also agree to disagree," Washington said, at Monday night's NAACP candidates forum. "Sometimes as change agents, we have to make hard decisions. We have to do hard things to make sure change happens in our community."

Elizabeth Bupp, a member of two neighborhood associations who has centered her campaign around making information more accessible for community members, said the council's job is to bring the ideas of the public to Helfrich's administration.

Councilwoman and Chief Impact Officer of YWCA, Edquina Washington speaking at the YWCA's Red Sand Project at Cherry Lane in York on Saturday, Jan. 28, 2023.

"We have to get along with the mayor, I think we should get along with the mayor. He has great ideas too," Bupp said. "We might not always get along with how to, for example, spend tax money but we should get along and try to compromise and try to disagree without being disagreeable."

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Teresa Johnescu, a former career educator who has held multiple municipal positions in the county, said the process of government should be a collaborative and cooperative relationship.

Teresa Johnescu, one of the candidates for a seat on the York City Council.

"The role of City Council is to represent city residents. It's also to provide a legislative and budgetary support for city initiatives but also to support members of the community," Johnescu said. "A positive relationship is necessary to get the best results."

Blade Kline, a research analyst for the state House Democratic Caucus who volunteers for the state and local Democratic Party, said the public perception is that the mayor and the council do not work together.

Blade Kline

"Obviously I am not on the inside of this at the moment so I cannot speak to if the relationship is truly better than what it represents itself, but I would say we need to work collaboratively with the mayor," Kline said. "We need to work together to better the city because if we're working in opposite directions it doesn't do anything to help better the lives of our residents."

One area in which the candidates disagreed was the proposed SafeNet camera system and the potential use of a drone in the city. While Washington said a study was needed to determine the pros and cons and a good working relationship with the ACLU is needed, Kline opposed the potential drone, citing civil liberties.

Johnescu, in contrast, said the camera system was needed, citing the Lancaster Safety Coalition and the high homicide rate in York.

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"Privacy on a public street is not to be expected, especially in a day of Ring [cameras] and cell phones. Our police currently have to chase down private property owners and capture video to solve violent crimes," Johnescu said. "Our police are already working with a camera system, let's give them one that helps out."

Elizabeth Bupp, Teresa Johnescu, Blade Kline and vice president Edquina Washington at the NAACP's York City Council candidate forum Monday, April 17.

Another question addressed the controversial plans for a potential warehouse near the Prospect Hill Cemetery. While the city does not have direct enforcement over the proposal, the candidates said the city should be involved with the process.

"We need to ensure that our city administration is working hard to push the other jurisdiction to ensure this does not happen," Washington said. "There are several issues and challenges that this will bring to us as residents of the city of York, Pennsylvania."

Kline, who attended protests as part of the group Residents Against the Warehouse on PA Avenue, also opposed the warehouse. He encouraged both the city administration and council to be outspoken against the proposal.

Pat Kelly of Park Village was at the Thursday March 2 protest against the Pennsylvania Avenue warehouse. Her father is buried at Prospect Hill Cemetery, where he bought a plot in 1938, alongside other family members.

Another question concerned the expansion of the residency requirement, which passed last year, and concerns that the city still had open positions available. Bupp said she had applied to the city several times and that she had not received a response.

"Now that we have the ability to hire outside the city, there shouldn't be any open positions," Bupp said. "Without it, there really is no excuse for any open positions."

Johnescu cited low wages, saying the city isn't competitive with the private sector where she's currently employed

"Improving the relationship between city council and city hall might make positions more attractive," she said.

Candidates were also asked about how they'd address vacant properties and blight. The candidates mostly cited code enforcement, saying the city needed to hold landlords accountable. Johnescu said blight was the top complaint she heard from residents other than crime and personal safety.

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"We continue to struggle with absentee landlords, landlords that don't live in the city or anywhere near the city," Kline said, " and that's something that needs to be tackled and looked at by council."

Elizabeth Bupp, one of the candidates for running for a seat on York City Council.

Bupp said the city should assist older homeowners with grant funding to make repairs to their homes, saying an older homeowner had recently gotten dinged on an inspection for rotten wood on a third-floor balcony.

"We need to offer some way for people to repair their homes when they get these inspections, when they fail them or have some minor thing," Bupp said, "they also need to know what that inspection is going to cover."

In their closing statements, the candidates sought to appeal to the Democratic residents who can vote for them in the primary.

"I have a lot of ideas," Bupp said, highlighting her newsletter that's designed to inform residents. "I have an accounting degree, I was an auditor. Auditors listen, then we research best practices and come up with solutions."

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Johnescu said in the 12 years she's been in York City, she's never failed to find something appealing about the city.

"There's so much potential here and I always feel we are just a half-dozen good choices away from making this a great city, and I want to be a part of that," she said. "I want to be a part of that."

Kline told the crowd he was a lifelong Democrat and York County native with local government experience.

"I'm ready to serve the residents on Day One," he said.

Washington said she looked forward to continuing to work with the residents of York City.

"I love this city. I'm always so proud and happy to be born here and raised here," Washington said. "I look forward to continuing to doing the hard work, the lovely work and the joyful work that I have been honored to do and serve on York City Council as vice president."

To watch the rest of the candidate forum, including candidates for the York County Board of Commissioners and the county prothonotary, visit the NAACP's Facebook page. The primary election is May 16.

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