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EDITORIAL: Helfrich had to hear it

York Dispatch Editorial Board

Here's a novel idea, mayor: Offer up a nominee or two for York City Council confirmation.

York Mayor Michael Helfrich was the victim of a public flogging Monday, June 24. For more than three hours, council members and taxpayers took turns hammering the freshman mayor.

Pitched as a hearing on Helfrich's hiring practices — specifically that of economic development guru Blanda Nace — it included gripes about potholes, trash collection and police service.

And council President Henry Nixon seemed more than happy to preside over Helfrich's bludgeoning. 

There's a lot to unpack after Monday night. There can be no doubt that supporters of former Mayor Kim Bracey, who Helfrich ousted in 2017, are still smarting over the political defeat. It appears there's no love lost between Helfrich and most of city council either.

Mayor Michael Helfrich outlines the duties of Blanda Nace and defends his decision to hire Nace as chief opportunity development officer, Monday, June 24, 2019. 
John A. Pavoncello photo

And, as with so many things, race remains a key subtext in a minority-majority city with a white mayor. After all, the criticism of Helfrich's seemingly deep desire to bring Nace into his administration began this past year and centered around fears that monied whites would displace minorities from York City's neighborhoods in the name of progress.

That fact made Helfrich's apparent surprise that Nace's appointment raised residents' ire disingenuous at best.

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But there's clearly one issue that's widening the gap between Helfrich and the city council.

The Helfrich administration's reliance on "acting" department heads is by any reasonable account an end-run on city council oversight. Helfrich's decision to create a title for Nace that explicitly avoided council confirmation was cynical at best.

That's especially true when paying Nace a salary that matches the range paid to department heads.

Council members are fed up with constantly getting dodged. And they should be.

The fix is easy, at least in technical terms. In the coming months, Helfrich should roll out a slate of nominees for confirmation to now-vacant positions atop the city's various departments and agencies. He should accept that, due to issues both political and practical, some of those hearings could get ugly.

Nevertheless, he should make a good-faith effort to acknowledge the city council's oversight authority.

As it stands, the narrative is of a mayor unwilling to share power. It's a story of a first-term executive foundering under the pressure. 

Helfrich's immediate reaction to Monday's meeting — an overhaul of how city jobs will be posted — is a step in the right direction, but it won't correct the root issues here. 

To Helfrich's credit, he showed up Monday and took it. But, even in this one instance, he committed a political error by not demanding Nixon impose a basic set of rules for the proceedings. Instead, it devolved in to an hours-long gripe-fest.

But, perhaps, Helfrich had to hear it.

Now, he must address the core issue by sending appointees to confirmation, regardless of the short-term pain that would spring from a city council not exactly populated by Helfrich fans. 

Anything less would be solidify the portrait of a mayor who resents oversight. And it's a caricature that would rightly threaten Helfrich's future political prospects.