Wanted: A Good Comptroller

July 29, 1995

It's been a long time since someone who deserved the confidence of the people was elected city comptroller. Hyman Pressman was popular. But before the self-proclaimed "watchdog" ended his 28 years in that post, he was sick and not even going through the motions of fulfilling his responsibilities. Even before Mr. Pressman's health failed, serious questions were raised about his performance.

During the 1987 election, challenger Thomas J.S. Waxter Jr. chided Mr. Pressman for not being vigilant enough to prevent the embezzlement of $1.1 million in city funds by John D. Callan, deputy director of the Neighborhood Progress Administration. Also during the Pressman years, a parking meter collector stole nearly a half-million dollars in coins from the city over a five-year period.

The next comptroller, Jacqueline McLean, left office in disgrace last year after it was discovered she was using the "watchdog" position to tap the city's coffers for personal gain. Mrs. McLean created a fictitious employee she called "Michelle McCloud" so she could pay herself an extra salary. She also slipped past the Board of Estimates a 10-year contract from the city Health Department to lease, for $1 million, a building she owned.

The performance of the last two elected comptrollers raised arguments that the post isn't really needed. But it was a good idea in 1857 when Mayor Thomas Swann first created the position, and it's a good idea now. The comptroller reviews every contract and lease that comes before the Board of Estimates and chairs city pension boards. That person must guard against questionable spending or investments that might otherwise be based on political favoritism. The city needs someone independent of the mayor or City Council doing that.

The Baltimore City Charter Commission studied the structure of city government for three years and recommended keeping the comptroller's post. In hindsight, it might have also suggested giving the comptroller authority to penalize city officials whom audits show are doing a poor job of financial oversight. Even without that authority, though, the comptroller can disclose mismanagement and use the resulting public opinion as a cudgel to force a mayor to deal with department heads who are not wisely spending public funds.

That is, the right comptroller can do that. Such a person must be a steadfast auditor, a real watchdog, with the tenacity to take on publicly any city official who frivolously spends taxpayer money. Such a person must be immune to the political pressures that can be brought by someone who wants the comptroller to look the other way. That person must not have any personal entanglements that might make the comptroller more susceptible to temptation in office. If voters keep those things in mind, they should elect the right comptroller.

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