York Mayor Michael Helfrich takes office as challenge to eligibility sits in court

Written by Rick Lee/The York Daily Record | Jan 2, 2018 6:10 PM

Judge Stephen Linebaugh, left, swears in York Mayor Michael Helfrich during his inauguration outside of City Hall on Tuesday. Latino community organizer Lou Rivera, center, holds the Bible for the ceremony. (Photo: Jason Plotkin, York Daily Record)

(York) -- An hour before Michael Helfrich was sworn in as mayor of the City of York on Tuesday, his attorney filed a response to a petition arguing he should be barred from taking that office.

A civil claim filed last week asked a York County judge to rule that Helfrich is disqualified from holding public office because of a 1991 felony drug conviction.

Helfrich was elected mayor in November, defeating two-term incumbent Kim Bracey.

In his response filed on Tuesday, Helfrich, through his attorney, countered that an identical argument was brought in 2011 when he won a seat on the York City Council and was rejected by the court.

Then, Judge Stephen P. Linebaugh ruled that Helfrich's drug conviction was not an "infamous crime," the legal standard that prevents an elected official from holding office.

At Tuesday's inauguration, it was Linebaugh who administered the oath of office to Helfrich.

Michael Helfrich takes office as York's new mayor talks about what is ahead and is surrounded by colorful entertainment. Paul Kuehnel

On Thursday, six York residents filed for an injunction to stop Helfrich from taking the office of mayor.

The petition asked the court to "declare that Defendant's felony conviction renders him disqualified to hold the office of Mayor of the City of York."

Helfrich pleaded guilty in 1991 in York County Court of Common Pleas to two drug-related felonies stemming from an incident when he was in his 20s.

In 2011, a court hearing before Linebaugh was held to settle that question. During his testimony, Helfrich admitted he had taken LSD in the past and only quit smoking marijuana when he decided to run for office.

Linebaugh, however, ruled that Helfrich's felony conviction did not rise to an infamous crime and that he could remain in office.

Challenges against Helfrich's ability to hold a council seat went no further. City residents re-elected him in 2015, and he served as council vice president. In 2016, he was elected council president.

Also included in Helfrich's response to the new injunction petition was the counterargument that Helfrich was improperly served with notice of the filing and that the petition was filed prematurely. In accordance with the law, the injunction petition, called a quo warranto, must be rejected by the state's attorney general's office and the county district attorney's office.

Neither office has made such a ruling yet, but new York County District Attorney David Sunday previously stated that he would look into the matter after he, too, was sworn into office.

But, Tuesday, after his own swearing-in, Sunday said he would not be making a public statement at this time about Helfrich's ability to hold office.

Mayor-elect Michael Helfrich's political opponents are again raising the infamous crime argument as why he should not be allowed to serve as mayor. Jason Plotkin, Rick Lee, York Daily Record

Sunday said it is his understanding that private citizens have filed a complaint, though he has not yet seen it. There can only be one filing, he said. "If there was a private filing, then the litigants are set." 

Among the petitioners who filed against Helfrich holding the office of mayor is former council member Toni Smith.

Helfrich, who had drawn praise for his efforts to fight pollution in the Codorus Creek, made his first run for city council in 2011.

He lost the Democratic primary to Toni Smith by less than 100 votes after Smith and her supporters sent out political postcards raising concerns about Helfrich's criminal record.

In the general election, Helfrich, running as a write-in candidate, defeated Smith by 23 votes.

Michael Helfrich spoke with the York Daily Record editorial board. York Daily Record

During his inauguration speech on Tuesday on the very cold steps of City Hall, Helfrich gave up 10 percent of his salary and his reserved parking place.

Helfrich said he will give 10 percent of his $75,000 salary annually to "organizations that support healthy families and safe neighborhoods."

This first year, those organizations that will receive contributions from Helfrich are Stick n Move, the  League of Exceptional Individuals, Inclusive Arts Movement York and the Reading Bug.

He also set aside nine parking spots in the City Hall lot to patients of Family First Health, which is located across George Street "so that those in need of medical care do not have to walk from parking lots on Duke Street and College Avenue."

He also dedicated the mayor's reserved spot for disabled clients of Family First Health.

Helfrich also named:

  • York City Police Captain Troy Bankert, a 20-year veteran, as the city's interim police chief;
  • Skyler Yost in the new position of ecosystem builder;
  • And, Philip Given, as chief of staff.

Helfrich also announced the Inauguration Saturday Benefit for York City's Youth Programs, a fundraiser for city youngsters.

The benefit kicks off this Saturday with free entertainment and opportunities to donate to youth program charities at Collusion Brewery, the Handsome Cab, the First Capital and the Holy Hound.

This story comes to us through a partnership between WITF and The York Daily Record

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