Annapolis alderman in conflict, critics say

Fox is vice president of a sailing group getting aid from city

He got free trips overseas

May 29, 2001|By Amanda J. Crawford | Amanda J. Crawford,SUN STAFF

As vice president of the nonprofit Ocean Race Chesapeake Inc., Michael W. Fox has worked for months to bring a prestigious international sailing race to the Chesapeake Bay next year and to arrange a stopover in Annapolis.

While working on the project, he has flown to South Africa, Sweden and England for planning meetings, trips financed by the nonprofit and the race's corporate sponsor, Volvo.

As an alderman on the Annapolis city council, Fox has been a key player in smoothing the way for the around-the-world race's stopover in April. The Anne Arundel County planning official has sponsored legislation that would allow local organizers to lease for $1 City Dock space and scarce downtown parking.

In addition, he plans to vote on a proposed $50,000 contribution of city money and services to the local organizers, including Ocean Race Chesapeake.

The race, formerly known as the Whitbread Round the World, drew tens of thousands of tourists to Annapolis and Baltimore in 1998, delivering a huge economic boost while helping to polish the cities' public image.

Fox said in denying that his dual roles posed a conflict of interest, "I have nothing to gain from it personally in any way, and the city has everything to gain from it."

But Fox's dual roles - as an Annapolis elected official and as vice president of Ocean Race Chesapeake, which is planning local stopovers for the Volvo Ocean Race Around the World - have sparked criticism from some council members.

They say Fox, in planning for the race, is on both sides of negotiations with the city. And they ask how he can be a vigorous advocate for Annapolis at the same time he represents the interests of Ocean Race Chesapeake and Volvo. They also question the ethics of accepting overseas trips financed by a company sponsoring a race that is receiving significant city support.

"It may not technically be an ethics violation, but it raises questions about your ability to be objective," said Democratic Alderman Sheila M. Tolliver. "If you sent me around the world, I would have trouble thinking of you in a critical way."

Republican Mayor Dean L. Johnson, who acknowledges the importance of an Annapolis presence among race organizers, said Fox's dual role in negotiations "has a potential of being a conflict, there is no doubt."

Johnson also said that if he were in Fox's position, he would not have taken the overseas trips.

Fox, who is a Republican, said he is doing what is needed to give Annapolis a voice in attracting an event that would have a major economic impact and promote the city worldwide.

The trips, he said, were important and have improved communication among race organizers and the host cities, something he said was lacking when the Whitbread race came to the area in 1998.

"I've never traveled much, so to me it was exciting," said Fox. "But I don't see any potential conflicts. ... It's a lot of work while you're there."

In January 2000, he visited South Africa to attend a race conference near Cape Town. His trip, which cost $3,283 for airfare and accommodations at the picturesque Lanzerac Manor and Winery, was paid for by Ocean Race Chesapeake.

Fox's trips to Volvo headquarters in Goteborg, Sweden, in October and to Southampton, England, last month were paid by the Volvo division organizing the race. The airfare and accommodations cost more than $1,800 and $1,400, respectively.

Daytime hours of the conferences were filled with meetings with race organizers and representatives of other host ports. Evenings and some afternoons featured tours, drinks and formal dinners, according to the itinerary.

In South Africa, participants were treated to an Opera Gala and spent the final day at the J&B Met horse race, which also featured roving performers, dancing girls and marching bands. Conference literature described the day as "a melee of Technicolor indulgence."

In Sweden, the group had cocktails at Volvo headquarters and attended a party at which a popular Swedish television comedian was host, according to another Ocean Race Chesapeake volunteer, Tom Miller, who attended two conferences on the organization's tab. In Southampton, they dined at a medieval castle in the New Forest, he said.

Fox did not record the trips on financial disclosure forms for 2000. Annapolis ethics rules prohibit city officials or employees from accepting gifts from an entity the city is doing business with, except in particular circumstances, such as expenses paid in return for a speaking engagement.

"This wouldn't have even gone on my radar screen," Fox said. "I see people all around going to functions that are picked up and no one blinks an eye at it. This is the same thing, just in a nice place to meet."

Fox said he and the Ocean Race Chesapeake board did not see any problem in his taking the overseas trips while serving as an alderman. The race "is something good for the area. I don't see how there could be any influence."

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