Oath molehill a mountainous waste of time

York Dispatch editorial board
Recently retired judge Stephen Linebaugh administers the oath of office to York City Mayor Michael Helfrich with Latino leader Lou Rivera standing by during a ceremony outside city hall Tuesday, Jan 2, 2017. Helfrich is the 25th mayor of York. Bill Kalina photo

On Jan. 20, 2009, Chief Justice John Roberts administered the oath of office to President Barrack Obama on the steps of the U.S. Capitol.

Incorrectly.

There was some miscommunication between Roberts and Obama regarding the pauses that allowed the new president to repeat phrases. As a result, a single word in the constitutionally delineated oath was read out of sequence.

The pair reconvened in the White House Map Room the following day to repeat the oath verbatim and all was well.

It’s a good thing former York City Council President Henry Nixon, failed mayoral candidate Shareef Hameed and the rest of their not-so-merry band of buttinskis weren’t around back then.

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Because a similarly insignificant technicality has prompted this group to campaign for the removal of York City Mayor Michael Helfrich — a campaign they escalated this month with an appeal to the state’s Superior Court.

Here’s how the whole silly affair got started: Helfrich, who was reelected to a second term last November, was vacationing when the City Council held its reorganizational meeting on Jan. 4 of this year. City code says mayors must take their formal oath of office within 14 days of that meeting. But after being advised by City Solicitor Jason Sabol that he could wait until returning from the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 24 to take the oath, Helfrich did just that.

So, he crossed this formality off the list three weeks after the reorganizational meeting instead of two.

Nixon, Hameed and more than a dozen others including several former city officials evidently see this as an impeachable offense. They filed a lawsuit to the Court of Common Pleas seeking Helfrich’s removal from office.

To make matters worse, the City Council sat on a proposed conflict-of-interest waiver that would have allowed Sabol to represent Helfrich in the case. So, taxpayers are on the hook for thousands of dollars in legal expenses.

The matter should have come to a close last month when Common Pleas Judge Clyde Vedder ruled against the petitioners. He correctly characterized the difference between the oath deadline and its completion as “trifling” and dismissed their proposed remedy as undemocratic.

“To remove Mr. Helfrich from office would ignore the clear determination of the electorate,” the judge wrote.

Unfortunately, the petitioners have now taken their case to the Superior Court, wasting additional time and taxpayer dollars on a matter that merits neither. They’re beginning to resemble the tiresome tribe that can’t stop whining about the 2020 presidential election.

Of course, there may be a lesson here. In an age where any discrepancy — no matter how slight or inconsequential — might be weaponized to challenge an opponent’s incumbency, it behooves office-holders to be mindful not to give the opposition political ammunition.

Back to Obama and Roberts. The Constitution states that a president’s term “ends at noon on the 20th day of January.” In 2013, Jan. 20 fell on a Sunday, a day on which inaugural ceremonies do not take place; the formal inauguration was scheduled for Jan. 21. So, the reelected president and the chief justice met at 11:55 a.m. on Jan. 20 for the official swearing-in; the following day’s public oath was strictly ceremonial. The deadline in this case was weightier, but the preemptive planning is instructive.

In comparison, Mayor Helfrich’s missed deadline is a piddling technicality, one that should neither cost him his office nor voters their choice. But it is a technicality that has been costly. Helfrich’s case demonstrates how, given the potential pettiness of opponents, office-holders must be mindful to avoid even minor and seemingly trivial missteps.