Limiting the Comptroller's Powers

December 23, 1993

The city charter is Baltimore's constitution. It defines the officials' functions and prescribes the bureaucratic arrangement for governing the city. As a literary effort it is akin to the Chronicles of the Old Testament. It would bore most people.

Over the past three years a commission has been updating the charter. During that time, comments were sought from the general public at an advertised hearing. No one showed up.

The commission has now released its draft report amid controversy concerning City Comptroller Jacqueline F. McLean, whose conduct is under grand jury and ethics probes. The report just might gain a wider readership since it recommends that the comptroller's office be stripped of power over city real estate transactions -- including leases -- and the purchase of insurance.

The recommendations were developed long before any hint of possible wrongdoing in the comptroller's office. Thus the recommendations do not concern individuals but organizational matters of governance that ought to be changed.

The 11-member commission, headed by retired Court of Appeals Judge Harry Cole, feels that the comptroller is simply not the proper official to oversee the city's real estate functions and transactions or negotiate purchase of insurance. It recommends that both functions dovetail so closely with the responsibilities of the Department of Finance that they should be transferred to it. We concur.

Real estate and insurance are specialized matters, but they are closely tied to the city's fiscal management. Logically, they ought to be overseen by the finance department. Previous charter revision panels have recognized that principle.

As a result, the city comptroller's responsibilities were systematically narrowed in earlier charter updates. "In our view, the distinctive function of the comptroller's office ought to be the audit function," the current commission declares.

Baltimore's Board of Estimates has, by and large, served the city well. In historic terms, an elected comptroller has been essential to the checks and balances in a government system that gives the mayor strong powers. At the same time, no real qualifications fiscal competence are required of the comptroller.

A city comptroller relies on the work of staff experts. Of course. But a transfer of real estate and insurance functions to the finance department would professionalize the handling of those

matters throughout the chain of command.

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