Ill health tames city's longtime fiscal watchdog

April 15, 1991|By Martin C. Evans

In the waning months of a 28-year career as Baltimore's fiscal watchdog, Comptroller Hyman A. Pressman has gone from being one of the city's most visible and outspoken elected officials to virtual inactivity because of ill health.

Once a stickler for detail who used the Wednesday meetings of the Board of Estimates as a platform from which to nag city bureaucrats over even the most minor expenditures of public money, he now rarely speaks at all.

Often seeming disoriented at board meetings, the 76-year-old Mr. Pressman has failed so badly since his 1989 stroke that he frequently does not recognize people he knows.

"To be real candid, he's slipping fast," Irwin A. Burtnick, an assistant comptroller, said of Mr. Pressman's mental sharpness when asked to set up an interview with the comptroller. "He has good and bad days, and his condition is deteriorating. The bad days are outnumbering the good ones."

Despite Mr. Pressman's poor health, there appears to be no pressure from either Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke or the City Council to ease him out of office before his term expires.

Under the City Charter, the council would have to choose a replacement for the comptroller should the office become vacant. But that is a decision the council wants to avoid.

Because at least two council members plan to run for comptroller this year, an attempt to choose a successor could embroil the council in a factious and bloody political fight. Anyone named by the council to the high-visibility comptroller's office would be given enormous power -- either to run for election BTC an incumbent or to endorse someone else.

Partly for this reason and partly out of respect for Mr. Pressman -- still regarded as an institution throughout city government -- council members say they want no part of any effort to ease Mr. Pressman from office.

"I would be the first as a friend, if he asked me, to tell him not to run again," said City Council President Mary Pat Clarke. "But he's made that decision. My preference is to honor Mr. Pressman's long service by honoring his decision to retire and letting him serve out his term."

"Should it become vacant, I'm obviously interested in the appointment," said Councilman Joseph T. "Jody" Landers, D-3rd, who is running for the comptroller's office. "But anyone who got it would have an obvious advantage. I think everyone on the council agrees he should be allowed to finish."

Councilwoman Jacqueline F. McLean, D-2nd, who also plans to run for comptroller, said: "I would lobby very hard to have my colleagues support me. But no one is even talking about that."

Richard A. Lidinsky, who has been deputy comptroller since 1962, is said to be the choice of both Mayor Schmoke and Council President Clarke as a successor to fill the remainder of the term should Mr. Pressman not complete it.

Mr. Schmoke was out of town Thursday and Friday and could not be reached for comment.

When asked for an interview last week, Mr. Pressman declined, saying, "That would be asking a lot of me."

Mr. Lidinsky, who is 70 and has served in the comptroller's office under eight mayors, is thought to be an ideal interim successor because he knows the job well but has no political aspirations.

"I would definitely not be a candidate to be elected for a full term," Mr. Lidinsky said. "I'm not looking to stay long."

The comptroller is one of the most influential -- if not most powerful -- elected officials in city government. In addition to sitting on the Board of Estimates, which approves the city budget and all major expenditures, the comptroller presides over the audits department. Those responsibilities give the comptroller the power to monitor city spending.

The comptroller also sits on the municipal Board of Finance and the boards of the three city pension systems, and controls the city real estate department, the harbor master's office and the municipal telephone exchange and post office.

In recent years, some of the comptroller's powers have been whittled away. Much of the comptroller's control over the city's insurance coverage was transferred to the Department of Finance several years ago, as was control over the municipal markets.

Mr. Pressman is credited widely with having assembled a knowledgeable, competent and scrupulously honest staff that is capable of running his office until his term ends in December.

"His department is being run by people he has appointed and they are doing a competent job," Ms. Clarke said.

Over the years, Mr. Pressman cultivated the image of a dogged adversary of wasteful government spending, often scrutinizing proposals brought before the Board of Estimates to the consternation of the other board members and using the courts to challenge the spending plans of various mayors.

In 1965, for example, Mr. Pressman pressed a case to Maryland's highest court to overturn a pay raise that city officials had voted themselves. Not satisfied by victory in that case, he filed a second suit, forcing the same officials to return the $50,000 they had already received.

On another occasion, he accused the parking commission of improperly awarding a garage contract. Then-Mayor Thomas J. D'Alesandro Jr. ordered an investigation, and the intended builder of the garage was fined $2,000 and given a year's suspended sentence. The parking commissioner was convicted of accepting illegal fees.

Far from being a humorless bureaucrat, Mr. Pressman managed to tug at the strings of Baltimore's blue-collar heart. He seemed to campaign constantly, high-stepping his way to the front of St. Patrick's Day parades and reciting poems he would wrote to commemorate all sorts of occasions.

"How could we decently and fairly do anything at this late date?" said Ms. Clarke. "It just wouldn't be fair."

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