York City Clerk: Council didn't start 'mayor oath fiasco'

Dianna L. Thompson
York City Clerk

This editorial is in response to The York Dispatch's opinion piece titled "Dear York City officials: Quit the oath of office malarkey and govern."  

Allow me to try to clear some things up.  

I’ll start by saying please don’t trivialize this oath of office situation by calling it malarkey. Oaths have been a requirement for public office from our nation’s inception. Oaths are also required by the laws of our state before a person can exercise the powers of their office. 

York City Council did not begin this mayor oath fiasco. The fiasco began with the mayor not taking the oath.   

From all the Right to Know Law requests submitted by the media, including The York Dispatch, you would think reports would tell what’s really going on. The truth is that this issue was not initiated by the council. It was brought to the council’s attention by concerned citizens from near and far. There are citizens who are watching every movement of city government and guess what? They caught this possible fatal flaw.  

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York City Clerk Dianna Thompson-Mitchell reads questions to the council that were submitted by York City residents during the York City Council Town Hall Meeting at Logos Academy in York City, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2018. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Failure to take the oath, depending on the circumstance, could result in consequences ranging from invalidation of actions or even prosecution. The concern is, if the mayor is, in fact, not the mayor, what problems could that cause in the sale of the Wastewater Treatment Plant, pending litigation, ARPA funding, etc.? Maybe these issues won’t be affected, but when considering the possible implications, wouldn’t it be irresponsible of the council to not inquire?  

The city’s assistant solicitor opined that since the mayor succeeded himself, he did not need to take the oath, and that may very well be correct — it surely would make life a little easier. However, council received some very impressive arguments that the mayor did need to take the oath and that a vacancy might exist in the office of the mayor.

So, what is council to do with this conflicting information? They got a second opinion, that’s what. The second opinion came from a licensed attorney who does not work for or in the City of York. Well, lo and behold, this second opinion conflicted with the assistant solicitor’s opinion in that it was opined that an argument could be made that a vacancy does in fact exist.   

Swartz comparison: This isn’t the first time a conflict has occurred in city government that was sent outside of City Hall for direction. Lest we forget, York City Police Officer Clayton Swartz was put on administrative leave for allegedly reenacting the murder of George Floyd, a black man, by white police officers. The trial board cleared Swartz, and an arbitrator said Swartz could return to work so, the city appealed to the Court of Common Pleas.

At the time, Mayor Helfrich said the arbitrator's decision is "not necessarily the final answer," and the city will wait to hear what the court decides. Furthermore, the mayor stated, "We’re going to continue on and watch as this all plays out, and we’re looking for guidance from the court to determine what action to take with the arbitrator’s decision.”

These are quotes directly from the article printed by The York Dispatch titled, “Arbitrator says York City officer accused of reenacting Floyd death can return to work.” So, what council is doing is not unheard of or unspeakable. Although the mayor may understandably not like the developments over his oath, I’m sure he can understand the concern. So, why can’t you? 

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Council had every opportunity to choose to declare the mayor’s seat vacant and vote to appoint a mayor to serve until the next municipal election, but they didn’t. Council is not trying to stop the mayor from being the mayor. They are merely interested in protecting the interests of the city. So, instead, the matter was referred to the Attorney General's Office and District Attorney's Office so that a neutral party can decide. In the meantime, council and the mayor are moving on with city business.  

Now, let’s talk about ARPA.  

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On veto fight: Please stop pitting the council against the mayor in this instance as well. The mayor did a great job putting together a committee and holding community engagements to prepare for ARPA allocations. It wasn’t the strategy in question; it was the delivery. Submitting a piece of paper with a spreadsheet of numbers on it didn’t cut it for council when considering our first tranche of $17 million dollars.   

After reviewing the recommendations of the committee, residents and city staff, all council wanted was a fair opportunity to share its recommendations, but they felt their attempts were being stifled.  

The purpose of council’s ARPA recommendations is not to undo all the mayor’s hard work; it is an attempt to incorporate some of the recommendations from the mayor, council, city staff and the public, and to serve as a starting point for discussion, which it has.   

Are these recommendations perfect? Of course not. Could this be the start of a great plan? Most definitely. It is not council’s intention to be the administrator of ARPA funds. What they want is for everyone to come to the table and come up with the best plan possible for the City of York and its residents. If this means more community engagement, more staff meetings and more surveys, then so be it. We may never see this opportunity again in our lifetime, so let’s not blow it.  

City government is made up of human beings. We are not perfect, mistakes will be made, and heated debates will be had. In the long run, the goal is the same — to make York City a better place to live, work, and play. That is our motto, and that’s the motto we strive to achieve no matter how bumpy the road is getting there.    

— Dianna L. Thompson is the York City Clerk.