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Judge: York mayor's delay in taking oath of office isn't enough to warrant his removal

Michael Helfrich was 3 days late in taking the oath because he was out of state. This week a York judge dismissed a petition to remove him from office.
Could Michael Helfrich's win be challenged?

YORK, Pa. — York City's mayor Michael Helfrich will remain in his office after a York County Court of Common Pleas judge denied a petition from political opponents, who contended the office was vacant because Helfrich did not take the mayoral oath of office in-person and in a timely manner following his re-election.

The York City Council said in February that it had received emails and phone calls from concerned citizens, who cited Section 10904 of the 3rd Class City Code. That code requires the mayor to take the oath of office within 14 days of the City Council's re-organization meeting.

Failure to do so within 14 days could lead to the office being deemed vacant, according to the code. 

York City Council held its re-organization meeting on Jan. 4., which means Helfrich had until Jan. 18 to take the oath, according to the code.

Helfrich was out of state attending a conference from Jan. 18-21. He took the oath via Facebook Live on Jan. 24, on the first business day after his return, according to facts stipulated to by both parties in the court's ruling.

Helfrich contended that he was not required to take the oath, because he had taken it when he was first elected mayor. He said he followed the advice of his solicitor in making the decision, and took the oath "as soon as possible" on the first business day after his return from the conference, the court document states.

After receiving calls and emails expressing concern with the timeliness of Helfrich's oath of office, York City Council said it would solicit legal opinions on the matter.

In his opinion, which was issued on Thursday, Judge Clyde W. Vedder concluded the three-day delay in taking the oath was not enough of a violation to overturn the results of the 2020 election, which Helfrich won "by a landslide."

"There was certainly no refusal to take the oath of office," Vedder wrote. "Nor did (Helfrich) ever intend to ignore his duty to take the oath of office."

Furthermore, Vedder wrote, even if Helfrich had violated the code, "we would not disenfranchise him for what is so trifling as possibly being three days late." 

In his decision, Vedder found the three-day difference to be "de minimis," a legal term meaning "too trivial or minor to merit consideration." 

"To remove Mr. Helfrich from office would ignore the clear determination of the electorate and result in the election being an empty ritual," Vedder wrote. "We do not believe that the Election Code, and the rule that its provisions must be meticulously observed, would abrogate our decision."

Vedder also noted in his decision that none of the 16 people who petitioned the court to express concerns about Helfrich's oath "saw fit to appear at the hearing...so that they might have gained a greater understanding as to the basis by which the mayor believes he is entitled to serve in the office."

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