Call it a $19,000 misunderstanding. Call it a car only a comptroller could love. Call it anything you want, but mostly call it a car Jacqueline McLean wishes everybody would stop talking about.
"Oh, Lord," the new Baltimore City comptroller says. "Why is everybody so excited about this car?"
She means the brand-new Mercury Grand Marquis, which entered her life the day she was sworn into office last week. The twilight blue '92 model arrived with a telephone and tape deck and air conditioning, but it also arrived with the aggravation of all these questions about extravagance.
In a time when the mayor is cutting basic services and hundreds of positions and scrounging for pennies in a desolate economy, why, people are asking, is the city paying $19,789 for a new car for Jacqueline McLean when she could be driving her own car?
"You're assuming I have a car of my own," McLean says.
"You don't?" she is asked.
"No," she says. "I don't have a car. I don't have a car. I don't."
"You have no car?" she is asked again.
"Well," she says, after a pause, "I have a truck, which I'm trying to sell."
Motor Vehicle Administration records list a 1987 Ford truck in McLean's name, as well as a 1989 BMW and a 1989 Jeep truck listed in both her name and her husband's name.
In her coyness, McLean is adding to her problems.
The city of Baltimore buys vehicles from private companies and then leases them to its various departments. Allegedly, the vehicles are used strictly for city business, and the departments pay a monthly fee for fuel, maintenance, and the eventual cost of a replacement vehicle. Yet, here is Jacqueline McLean explaining her financial relationship with her new car:
"Because I drive the car, I have to pay for it. So it's not like people are trying to make it sound, like all of a sudden the new comptroller is buying this expensive car. I pay for it. I pay for it every month."
"She's personally paying?" said George Balog, the city's director of Public Works. "No, of course not. There's no personal expense at all, it's the comptroller's office that's paying. I don't know how she could be paying."
Others at City Hall explain that McLean would not be billed for any driving she might do that involves city business, but she would have to pay a mileage fee for any personal use of the car.
For the last 28 years, the city comptroller was Hyman Pressman, the watchdog of Baltimore finances who refused a city car (and refused to bill the city for any business mileage on his personal car) until ill health overtook him a few years ago and he needed to be driven about.
Within days after he left office recently, Pressman was moved to a nursing home.
When McLean was elected Pressman's successor last month, she was told that Pressman's old city car -- a 1988 Ford LTD with 56,000 miles on it -- was available but that she could opt for a new car.
"We asked her if she wanted it rotated," George Balog explained. "She said, yes, she wanted it rotated," meaning she wanted a new car.
"I had nothing to do with it," McLean says. "It's a car that comes with this office. It's not a decision for the comptroller, it's a decision made by the Department of Public Works. I don't have an option not to take it, it's the car for the comptroller's office, not for Jackie McLean."
"Oh, no," Balog says. "It's certainly her option not to take it. But she's entitled to it if she wants it, and she said she wanted it. And, after 56,000 miles, she had the option for a new car."
McLean's reaction to all of this is: Big deal. Financially speaking, maybe she has a point. What's $19,000 when the city's awash in millions of dollars in red ink? Symbolically, though, something else is happening here.
On Inauguration Day, the mayor of Baltimore, Kurt L. Schmoke, taking note of the city's dismal economy, held his swearing-in at City College and then returned to work at City Hall. That was the extent of his public celebrating.
On the night McLean was inaugurated, she staged an $85-a-ticket black tie dinner at the Sheraton Inner Harbor, billed as the First Comptroller's Inaugural Ball, attended by about 400 business people and community leaders.
The mayor attended only after assurances that some of the money raised that night would be contributed to charity. McLean said yesterday that $5,000 went to Associated Black Charities.
But many at City Hall were appalled at the party's image: someone who would sit on the powerful Board of Estimates, where the city does its financial business, charging for an inauguration night high-cost party attended by some of the very people who will be wishing to do business with the city.
"I don't understand the connection," McLean says. "Like I was giving a signal to these business people? That's a rotten way of thinking. . . . People can perceive what they want to, I have no control. And I'm not going to try.
"The people who went to the party spent their own money. They felt good that I had won, and they spent their own money. If people are upset about other people spending their own money, they need to rethink their own position."
But the issue is not merely the spending of private money but also the mingling of private money with public figures in sensitive positions. It's not a pretty sight. Nor is the sight of the city comptroller taking a new $19,000 car while the city's cutting people's jobs, and then trying to say she's paying for it herself.