Rushing to trouble

December 17, 1993

The widening probes by a grand jury and a municipal standards panel will establish Jacqueline F. McLean's criminal and ethical guilt or innocence. But the city comptroller's ability to sneak a lease agreement for her family's property past her fellow city top officials shows that the procedures of the Board of Estimates need tightening.

Under the City Charter, that five-member board meets on a weekly basis to approve major municipal expenditures and contracts. Agenda items normally are accompanied by ample supporting documentation and representatives of city agencies are present to explain the action requested.

This system has served Baltimore City reasonably well. But as the McLean case shows, the system is open to misuse through the introduction of last-minute walk-on items.

Such items are tagged onto the end of the Board of Estimates agenda. By the time they are considered, the mayor, City Council president, city comptroller, the city solicitor and the director of public works have already been meeting for hours and usually approve whatever is presented without a thorough examination.

This is what apparently happened Oct. 27. An agreement that would have leased a Federal Hill property to a city agency was introduced at the last minute and sailed through the Board of Estimates without further questions. We now know that the property -- listed under an incorrect address -- was owned by the family of City Comptroller McLean, who made no attempt to disclose her interest in the case. If the lease agreement had not been ultimately rescinded, her family would have benefited financially through the needless relocation of a city agency from rent-free quarters to their building.

Ms. McLean clearly put her own selfish interests above those of the city and the taxpayers whose interests she was elected to guard. Whatever the outcome of the criminal and ethics probes, she has to live with that damaging verdict.

This means, in practical terms, that she is unlikely to enjoy much trust among her colleagues on the Board of Estimates. They were hoodwinked once and do not want it to happen again.

One way to diminish that possibility is to curtail the last-minute walk-on items on the Board of Estimates agenda to the absolute minimum. A routine lease agreement seldom qualifies as an emergency. A routine matter that cannot wait until the next weekly meeting ought to trigger the alarm bells.

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