Councilman’s Role With International Student Rentals Questioned; Long-Time Builder Believes Hartman Overstepped Ethical Boundary

Councilman’s Role With International Student Rentals Questioned; Long-Time Builder Believes Hartman Overstepped Ethical Boundary

OCEAN CITY — Allegations made this week by a prominent retired builder have raised questions about whether an Ocean City councilman has unethically used his elected office to settle personal vendettas or fill his own pockets in the seasonal rental market.

George Harkins, the retired owner of Harkins Contracting and Harkins Concrete Construction, made a name and a fortune for himself in the region in the 80’s and 90’s specializing in mid- and high-rise buildings up and down the coast. He estimates he’s built well over 150 buildings and says that “you can’t go two blocks in Ocean City without running into a building where I did pour the structural concrete.”

Historically speaking, he is among a handful of builders along the coastline who had an enormous impact on its current look.

But, after the housing market bottomed out in the late 2000’s, Harkins, who was nearing retirement and was transitioning out of his own businesses, decided to purchase a property in downtown Ocean City that he had built, and use it for international student housing.

“I didn’t know anything about the J-1 visa program at the time, but an architect friend told me that I should consider renting the building to foreign students,” said Harkins in an interview at his Berlin home last week. “Honestly, I got into it because my granddaughter started travelling the world at the time, and I saw what  many of the other units looked like that were renting to foreign students and I wanted to rent a nice and clean place to someone else’s grandson or granddaughter.”

The result was the Summer Semester, a large and elegant looking building at 302 2nd Street that resembles a modern condominium and stands as one of Ocean City’s only dormitory style housing units for students. It quickly became the place where international students wanted to live, and Harkins took on the daily operations of the unit himself.

“I fell in love with those kids,” he said. “They are the best and brightest from these other countries, and I just wanted them to feel like they were welcome here.”

Harkins exclusively rented to students signed up with United Work and Travel, because he claims “they were the only company to be taking the mission to ensure these kids were properly treated like I was.”

This backstory is relevant in getting to the aforementioned claims that Harkins made this week about City Councilman Wayne Hartman, a long time seasonal and year-round rental property owner, and that story starts with a row Harkins had with the city last summer that resulted in him locking the city out of his building and absorbing a $1,000 a day fine from the city for 28 days straight.

Where Did Order Originate?

Harkins claims that for three straight years, Summer Semester had passed all city inspections and requirements for him to put four beds in each room.  However, in July of 2015, he received a phone call from the city informing him that a complaint had been levied against his building based on the city’s 40-square-foot-per-person rule, which has been in place since the late 70’s.

“They told me they wanted to come down and measure my rooms and if I was even one square foot over, they were going to throw students out of the building,” said Harkins. “Here we were in the middle of the summer, and I couldn’t entertain the possibility of someone kicking students out on the streets, so I told the city they couldn’t come in until after the summer was over.”

Upon further questioning with the caller, Harkins learned that the complaint came from Councilman Wayne Hartman.

“Apparently Wayne had started up on this mission to clean up the rental market and was going after people who were overcrowding foreign students,” said Harkins. “I was told [Councilman Wayne Hartman] went to City Hall and took the plans for Summer Semester and picked over them with a fine tooth comb until he found what he was looking for.”

Because Harkins refused to let the city come into the building, he was fined $1,000 per day for the move, and he racked up $28,000 in fines from Aug. 10, 2015 to Sept. 8 2015, according to official town records.

Eventually a few weeks later, Harkins paid the city a lesser but undisclosed fee and allowed Chief Building Inspector Kevin Brown in to measure his rooms. Additionally, Harkins plead guilty based on the city’s finding of overcrowding but not for a specific amount of rooms.

“I’ve been doing this for a long time, and I have seen gross cases of overcrowding,” said Brown. “Summer Semester was not one of those cases, but some of the rooms were a few square feet short to have four beds in there, so technically, he was overcrowding, and I have to do my job based on the strict numbers of the law.”

Harkins admits that he never knowingly overcrowded and made immediate changes as a result. Harkins did not share who from the city called him but Brown denies making that call.

“My question has always been why the city would go after my building, which is to my knowledge, is the only lifesaving structure in Ocean City that is built at a higher standard than any other place that rents to international students would be the target over a few square feet when there is blatant overcrowding in living conditions that are nothing short of squalor?,” Harkins said.

When questioned about where the order to inspect and the original complaint came concerning Summer Semester, Councilman Wayne Hartman, who also sits on the city’s PRESS (Property Review and Enforcement Strategies for Safe Housing) committee, denied he made any complaint about Summer Semester and that he had ever pulled the building’s plans.

“That complaint about possible overcrowding at that building, as I recall, originated from a police officer when we were having our organizational meeting for the PRESS committee,” said Hartman. “Councilman [Doug] Cymek and I had stepped out of the room and walked up to a conversation between two police officers who were talking about concerns they had about Summer Semester.”

Cymek mirrors this same recollection of history, recalling in specific detail that the complaint was sourced to a police officer.

However, upon obtaining police reports on the Summer Semester building for the past two years, there were no filed complaints by police officers that indicated concerns about overcrowding.

That’s not to say the building wasn’t on the OCPD’s radar.  From January of 2015 to present day, police have responded to a number of calls about activities at the building ranging from noise violations to stolen bikes.  In fact, one police report, dating back to May 25, 2015, Harkins himself called the OCPD to issue a trespass warning to four international students he found to be staying in the building who weren’t on the lease.

“I checked those rooms every day, and we did everything from take out their trash for them to shuttle them back and forth to the grocery stores,” said Harkins, “but I would not allow kids to stay there that weren’t supposed to be there, even my tenant’s significant others.”

Brown recalls getting the order to inspect Summer Semester from the PRESS Committee and he says the first person he heard about it from, based on his recollection, was from Hartman.

“I am not leading the charge of the PRESS committee to regulate housing in Ocean City,” said Hartman. “I am merely a liaison that was appointed by the mayor to this committee, based on my knowledge of the industry, to help out. Bill Neville is the department head and Kevin Brown is the chief building inspector.

Yet, while that is true today, Neville couldn’t have ordered Brown to inspect the Summer Semester in mid-July because he didn’t have his first day working in Ocean City until Aug. 1 as the city’s new Planning and Zoning Director.

So, the question of where the order came from to inspect Summer Semester does bring into question a few things. If the complaint originated from a police officer, as Hartman and Cymek recall, why was the call from the city last summer telling Harkins that he was suspected of being a few square feet over in his rooms coming from a police officer, who likely aren’t focused on the nuances of an almost 40-year-old building code?

Harkins says that question is easily answered if you know more about the backstory of how he and Hartman are inexplicably linked by the international housing market.

Competition Turns Sour?

In an interview last March, Hartman told The Dispatch that he had shifted his business model from renting to international students to looking for year-round tenants only.

He called it the “best use” for his properties, based on the demands of his elected office.  Furthermore, he said he had no intention of renting to foreign students ever again, after spending almost a decade providing housing to several J-1 student companies.  According to Annemarie Conestabile, director of United Work and Travel, from 2003 to 2014, Hartman housed many of her students.

“At one point, I think he had almost 200 of my students,” she remembers. “But, over the years, the kids began to tell me that they didn’t want to live in his places anymore and the number of students he housed went down drastically. When Summer Semester became an option, all of the kids wanted to live there and I think that definitely upset some of the other landlords.”

Harkins alleges that the dispute between he and Hartman started with the increased popularity in Summer Semester.

Hartman, however, alleges he’s always been at full capacity with his rentals, so he called Harkins’ claims “completely vindictive.”

Yet, further claims by Harkins say that Hartman was upset by the loss of some students, particularly Dominican Republic students, who had previously rented from Hartman but had shifted over to Summer Semester last year.

“I had two of the workers from United Work and Travel come to me and say that they had witnessed Wayne storm into Annemarie’s office threatening her by saying that he was an elected official and that he was going to make her pay for taking students away from him,” Harkins said.

Conestabile wouldn’t confirm nor deny the specifics of the alleged threat, but did say, “Yes, I felt threatened by Mr. Hartman.  It’s very difficult for me to talk about.”

Hartman says he never threatened Conestabile directly.

“If I were to have made a threat, it would have been to say that I was going to call the State Department and let them know that she was making students stay in his apartments and not letting them choose for themselves,” he said.

Conestabile says the policy of United Work and Travel has always been to let the students choose where they want to stay, even if that means moving the students after they arrive.

“It’s always the student’s choice,” said Conestabile.

Additionally, going back to Hartman’s claims that he was out of the international rental market, in March, The Dispatch found that one of Wayne Hartman’s properties, 333 Robin Drive, was listed as a seasonal spring rental on the E-Point Student Travel Center website.

Hartman says he’s never had any contract or relationship with E-Point, and is unsure of why his property is listed on that site. However, he did willing admit that he is currently renting to 18 International students in three of his units.

“When I told you that I was getting out of that business a few months ago, I was being truthful,” said Hartman. “I had some openings and I filled them, but E-Point has no right to be marketing my property. They haven’t had that right for years.”

When this reporter went to E-Point to inquire about the property on Robin Drive, which has a sign that clearly states, ‘International Student Housing’ with Hartman’s cell phone number underneath, a business card was given to me to put me in contact with Zviad Pagava who could show me the property.

When Hartman was asked about his relationship to Pagava, he pulled out his cell phone, which had Pagava’s number listed simply as “Z” on his phone, and called the E-Point representative.

“Zviad, its Wayne,” said Hartman.

“Hello Wayne, what’s up,” quipped Pagava.

“Why is my Robin Drive house on E-Point’s website,” querried Hartman.

“It’s from the spring, don’t you remember,” said Pagava.

“I’m here with a newspaper reporter who is asking questions why that listing is there, and that’s obviously a mistake.  Can you please take it down immediately?,” said Hartman.

“Of course, Wayne,” said Pagava. “I will do that.” At press time Thursday, Hartman’s Robin Drive listing was still on E-Point’s website.

Lastly, Hartman’s future plans for the international housing market were also brought into question when it was leaked to this publication that he was in talks to purchase two parcels of land on 2nd Street from Anthony J. Mariani at 205 Philadelphia Avenue. Allegedly, Hartman was considering building student housing on that parcel in a structure similar to Summer Semester.

“At one point, I was considering that, but I have since gone in other directions,” said Hartman. “There is no question that we need more housing, but the reason why people haven’t been investing in large dorm style housing is that it’s very hard to make a profit on it.”

What This Means Moving Ahead

Hartman alleges that he’s done nothing wrong and has not been singlehandedly trying to fix the housing market, even though even his own colleagues on the council recall him tenaciously working on the 10-foot closet amendments to the city’s 40-square-foot space law for tenants for well over a year.

Yet, while Harkins, a retired millionaire, is admittedly jaded that last year’s row with the city painted him out to be “some kind of slumlord that was taking advantage of international students,” Hartman alleges he has actually “lost money in the rental business because of my knowledge of how the city code works and how the measurements should be done.”

Nonetheless, the question to raise is if an elected official should be sitting on a committee where he has the power to regulate an industry that he actively turns a profit in.

“All of us on the council own property in Ocean City, so if you go by that rationale, no one could serve on the PRESS committee,” said Hartman.

About The Author: Bryan Russo

Bryan Russo returned to The Dispatch in 2015 to serve as News Editor after working as a staff writer from 2007-2010 covering the Ocean City news beat. In between, Russo worked as the Coastal Reporter for NPR-member station WAMU 88.5FM in Washington DC and WRAU 88.3 FM on the Delmarva Peninsula. He was the host of a weekly multi-award winning public affairs show “Coastal Connection.” During his five years in public radio, Russo’s work won 19 Associated Press Awards and 2 Edward R. Murrow Awards and was heard on various national programs like NPR’s All Things Considered, Morning Edition, APM’s Marketplace and the BBC. Russo also worked for the Associated Press (Philadelphia Bureau) covering the NHL and the NBA and is a critically acclaimed singer/songwriter and composer.