York City resident pledges challenge to Mayor-elect Helfrich's eligibility

Jason Addy
York Dispatch

As York City Mayor-elect Michael Helfrich prepares to take office at the start of the new year, one constituent is readying to challenge his eligibility to hold public office.

Standing just feet from Helfrich at the start of the York City Council’s Tuesday, Nov. 21 meeting, Rick Loper asked the council to file a lawsuit challenging Helfrich’s ability to serve as mayor because of his 1991 felony drug convictions.

Michael Helfrich, left, and his lawyer, Charles J. Hobbs, look over the voting numbers following Monday's recount. The York City council recount started at 1:30 p.m. Monday,  and ended three hours later with the exact same number of votes Toni Smith and Michael Helfrich had before the recount. Bil Bowden photo

“We have laws that are on the books that are not being enforced within our own city right now — laws on convicted felons, jobs they can hold, elected and not, and we’re not enforcing them,” Loper said to the council without ever mentioning Helfrich by name.

Helfrich was 21 when he pleaded guilty in 1991 to two felony drug charges, following his arrest with a man carrying psychedelic drugs. Helfrich spent 45 days in York County Prison and was released after his plea, when the judge determined "he was not the player in this."

“I’m asking the council to step up to the plate and deal with this issue because there is a grassroots movement that’s saying, ‘Look. There is something wrong here,’” Loper said. “Is it going to be up to us to file the lawsuit, or are you going to file the lawsuit and pursue the law?”

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None of the four council members in attendance, including Helfrich, responded to Loper, who was speaking during the public comment portion of the meeting. Council members are not required to respond to public comments, according to the council’s bylaws.

Council members Henry Nixon, Sandie Walker, Renee Nelson and Judy Ritter-Dickson did not return calls for comment Friday, Nov. 24.

Previous challenge: Those convictions have dogged Helfrich since he announced his campaign for York City Council in 2011.

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Before the May 2011 Democratic primary, Toni Smith, an incumbent councilwoman, circulated flyers questioning Helfrich’s eligibility to challenge her, citing his felony record.

Smith defeated Helfrich by 99 votes in the primary, but Helfrich launched a write-in campaign and defeated Smith by just six votes in the November 2011 municipal election.

That victory prompted an official challenge by York City Mayor Kim Bracey, under Article II, Section 7 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, which bans those convicted of “embezzlement of public moneys, bribery, perjury or other infamous crime” from holding public office.

Then-President York County Common Pleas Judge Stephen Linebaugh ruled Aug. 1, 2012, that Helfrich’s felony convictions do not qualify as “infamous crimes,” breaking with decades of case law in Pennsylvania under which all felonies were considered infamous.

Bracey declined to appeal Linebaugh’s decision to a higher court, and Helfrich served out his four-year term before being re-elected to the council in 2015. Helfrich took over as city council president in November 2016. 

'Unbiased' review: On his way out of City Hall after making his public statement, Loper reiterated a court challenge is necessary to ensure the city is following and enforcing state law. 

Loper confirmed he will bring a challenge "if the city doesn't do something."

Noting York County's district attorney recused himself from the case in 2011 — DA Tom Kearney served as Helfrich’s defense attorney for his 1991 charges — Loper said he feels the case deserves an “unbiased” review by the state Supreme Court.

Reached for comment Wednesday, Nov. 22, Helfrich said he was not worried about Loper’s potential challenge.

Helfrich said it is “very clear” that he is allowed to serve; otherwise, he would not have run for mayor and would not be the head of the York City Council.

Chuck Hobbs, Helfrich’s attorney, said he expects any potential challenge to Helfrich’s eligibility to fail because Linebaugh’s ruling “is now precedent in York County.”

“If it’s the same (legal) substance, you can’t bring the same action over and over and over again,” Hobbs said, referring to res judicata, which is essentially double jeopardy in civil cases. “In law, it says you should not have to relitigate things for your whole life.”

According to Hobbs, the York County district attorney has original jurisdiction to bring a challenge, followed by the Pennsylvania attorney general. If both offices decline to pursue a case, a private resident then can bring a challenge, Hobbs said.

Kyle King, spokesman for the York County District Attorney’s Office, said Kearney again recused himself from any potential challenge to Helfrich’s eligibility and referred the matter to Attorney General Josh Shapiro.

Representatives at the Attorney General’s Office were not immediately available for comment Wednesday, Nov. 22.

— Editor's note: This article has been updated to correct the details of Michael Helfrich's arrest and guilty plea in 1991.