Conflicts Of Interest And Local Government

Conflicts Of Interest And Local Government

In small town government, conflicts of interest can seem apparent at nearly every turn, but locally most of the time problems do not arise.

For example, take the Boardwalk street performer task force. It’s comprised of Boardwalk business owners and a street performer, among others. Surely, the Boardwalk property owners appointed to the body have a stake in this situation as does the spray paint artist himself. They may or may not be exercising judgment based on their own well-beings but surely they are referring to their own unique perspectives when weighing in on certain matters. Their personal experiences make them knowledgeable on the matters at hand.

Concerns would surface if the Boardwalk property owners were crafting or proposing legislation that would singularly help their business and bottom line while not looking to suggest Boardwalk-wide recommendations. Over two years of crafting proposed rules and regulations, all individuals involved appeared to approach matters with a broad enough lens to not raise any proverbial red flags.

The same can be said for several other committees in Ocean City. On the surface, there would appear to be obvious conflicts of interest after a review of their personnel make-ups because the individuals serving on these groups have experiences and knowledge unique to their professions. It’s typically okay for these sorts of advisory groups to work around these obvious conflicts so long as it doesn’t hamper integrity and undermine policy making at the higher Mayor and Council level. What cannot be tolerated is any semblance of impropriety or actions that raise questions about impartiality and special treatment.

That brings us to the Property Review and Enforcement Strategies for Safe-housing (PRESS) Committee, a dormant group that was reformed in 2014 to address an ocean of community housing concerns. It consists of members from police, building, zoning, fire marshal and finance departments. Among the committee members is Councilman Wayne Hartman, who makes his living renting multiple seasonal and year-round units in Ocean City.

In an extensively researched story last month that began as a general look at summer housing by former News Editor Bryan Russo, who voluntarily left the paper this month to pursue other career opportunities, Hartman was accused by well-known Eastern Shore builder George Harkins of using his bully pulpit to his own advantage by complaining privately to the city about alleged overcrowding in Harkins’ units at his Summer Semester building. Rather than risk having his renters thrown out on the streets in the middle of the season, Harkins refused to allow the city to inspect his units for overcrowding and was subsequently fined $28,000. A settlement was later reached on that amount evidently.

“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.

It’s an interesting question and Harkins is adamant it was Hartman who notified the city of overcrowding. Harkins alleges an adversarial relationship with Hartman led to the councilman looking to hurt Harkins’ rentals. Harkins maintains Hartman was losing renters to his newer and nicer Summer Semester building and that fueled the complaint.

Hartman denies Harkins’ accusations that he requested or ordered an inspection of the seasonal housing units as well as claims from an international student workforce liaison that he threatened her at some point along the way for not referring prospective renters to his properties. These are reputable folks who would have no reason to fabricate or exaggerate anything, but in the end the reader is left to decide who to believe and whether malfeasance was at play by Hartman. There’s no smoking gun, so to speak, but valid questions that needed to come to light.

There’s a fine line between bringing valuable insight and experience to an ongoing private industry matter as a public official and exerting too much of the considerable influence that comes with elected office to affect a change that may or may not be solely for the greater good. That’s an important distinction and clearly in this case there appears to be substantial concerns on whether Hartman went too far in grinding an axe that would help his own bottom line.

We believe there are enough valid questions and accusations about poor judgment that should lead to Hartman no longer serving on the PRESS Committee, which provides policy recommendations to the council on housing matters.

Hartman sees no issue with the fact he rented to international students this past summer, despite maintaining he was out of the business earlier this year, while clearly pushing for changes in the seasonal housing market. He has significantly reduced the amount of international student housing he offers, but it’s clear he is still in the business while actively helping craft and lead the charge for changes to rental regulations this year.

One of the reasons this paper endorsed Hartman for office two years ago was what he would bring to the table on the complex rental problems facing Ocean City. However, he has to do that in a way that does not blatantly reveal a conflict of interest with ulterior motives. At this point, at least with this particular situation, it appears there was some funny business with how Harkins’ unit came to be inspected.

If a council person hears about overcrowding at a rental housing unit in Ocean City or sees a tree hanging too far over a sidewalk, for example, he or she is certainly within their purview to bring it to the attention of the appropriate city staff members. However, it can’t come with an obvious connection to his or own personal business affairs.

That appears to be what happened in this case regarding the rental unit, despite some city officials maintaining the inspection originated because of a noise complaint being filed with the police department. If that’s the case, the paperwork is not there to support it.

We are not maintaining gross malfeasance on Hartman’s part, and we may never know the exact connection between Harkins’ affairs and the councilman. What we do know, however, is that the entire situation has left such a sour taste in the prominent builder’s mouth that he has abandoned plans to follow through on building a large-scale seasonal housing facility in Ocean City. That’s a shame and may be the most important consequence here.

Overcrowding is a serious issue in Ocean City. It merits careful scrutiny through inspections, but if elected officials are going to get involved in this sort of thing, as appears to have been the case here, they need to be beyond reproach. There can be no questions surrounding their motivation. There are valid enough questions and concerns in this situation to reveal there’s a conflict of interest with an elected official serving on a committee making recommendations on an industry he is vested 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 in last month’s article.

That would not be a bad idea in our opinion. Let the private industry work with city appointed planning staff members on proposed changes in the future. Those proposed plans of action can then be presented to the Mayor and Council, which can then decide whether to create policy consistent or counter to those recommendations. The process needs to be clean and at a minimum there seems to have been muddying of the waters that needs to be avoided in the future.

About The Author: Steven Green

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The writer has been with The Dispatch in various capacities since 1995, including serving as editor and publisher since 2004. His previous titles were managing editor, staff writer, sports editor, sales account manager and copy editor. Growing up in Salisbury before moving to Berlin, Green graduated from Worcester Preparatory School in 1993 and graduated from Loyola University Baltimore in 1997 with degrees in Communications (journalism concentration) and Political Science.