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Annapolis alderman in conflict, critics say


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."

Lizzie Green, press officer for the race with Volvo Event Management UK, said the trips were "absolutely essential" for successful race stopovers and were carefully orchestrated, right down to dinner seating plans.

"I'm sure it sounds like lots of fun, but it is actually an enormous amount of hard work at these conferences," she said.

Fox extended two of the trips into vacations. On the way to South Africa, he extended a layover to spend four days in London. Before arriving in Southampton, Fox spent a couple of days in Dublin, Ireland, and ended the trip with a few days in Paris. He said he paid for the hotels, food and additional travel.

Fox considers himself the city's representative on the Ocean Race Chesapeake board because he headed a local committee that studied whether to bring the race back after the Whitbread racing fleet's stop in 1998.

Through that work, he met Ocean Race Chesapeake's president, Gregory H. Barnhill. Fox said Barnhill asked him to be on the board of directors.

Fox does not report back to the mayor or council about his activities with Ocean Race Chesapeake. Some council members and Johnson said they did not know about the travel related to the race or who paid for it.

"We have no input as to what he does on this board, so I don't feel he is representing the City Council," said Democratic Alderman Louise Hammond, who represents downtown Annapolis. She said that as an elected official, Fox "should not be accepting freebies from anybody."

Hammond said Fox's role on Ocean Race Chesapeake's board - regardless of what perks come with it - is a conflict of interest.

As vice president of that group, he is on both sides of negotiations with the city. The $1 lease that he is co-sponsoring on the council - similar to one for the Whitbread race - would turn over city space, including downtown parking and some city buildings and services, to Ocean Race Chesapeake for nine days.

The lease does not require the racing group to pay for costs incurred by the city for the event, such as police overtime or public works services, which many other groups have to pay.

Fox also serves on the City Council's three-member finance committee, which reviews and makes recommendations on the mayor's budget. This year, the proposed budget includes a $50,000 grant for the race, most of which was to be a contribution to Ocean Race Chesapeake. Fox said Wednesday that because of questions from The Sun, the organization might withdraw its grant request.

"It's a pretty generous use of city facilities and financial support compared to other events we bring to the city," Tolliver said, adding that she does not oppose having the race come to Annapolis. "There is $50,000 in the budget. That's certainly something we don't do for everyone."

The deal is one of the better ones given to nonprofits, including First Night Annapolis Inc., a local group that stages a popular New Year's Eve celebration that attracts about 20,000 people each year and has an estimated $1 million economic impact in the region, said Janice Gary, First Night's executive director.

First Night paid the city $1,000 to rent downtown space for three days and to cover half of the cost of city services, about $7,600. The group, which puts on some free performances and fireworks but charges adults $15 and kids $10 to attend other shows, has not gotten any city financing.

"They are getting a heck of a deal," Gary said of the Volvo race.

Fox points to the economic impact of the race, which brought in an estimated $26.2 million and drew more than 200,000 people in 1998 to the Baltimore-Annapolis region. The race could be good publicity for the state capital, which bills itself as "sailing capital of the world."

Hammond said Fox should recuse himself from all discussions and votes on the race. "He can either serve as a board member and then recuse himself from the vote or he can sit on the city council and discuss and vote but not have any connection to the board," she said. "He can't do both."

Democratic Alderman Ellen O. Moyer, who worked with Whitbread race organizers in 1998, disagrees. "This is a major event, and we should have legitimate representation on the board," said Moyer, who accused Hammond of helping to create a "big, international embarrassment" by questioning Whitbread's lease just before the race three years ago.

Fox "is a liaison; he is a linkage," she said. "He is the logical person to sponsor the lease."

Fox said he has no intention of recusing himself: "I don't do anything that isn't kosher. If it was a direct beneficial gain to me, than I would recuse myself in an instant."

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