Pratt has big hill to climb New city comptroller: First months on job provide valuable lessons.

March 11, 1996

THE DIFFERENCE IN the way new City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III and new Comptroller Joan M. Pratt are handling their jobs right now is due to the experience in government that Mr. Bell brought with him. That doesn't mean he will be the more effective public servant. It does mean Ms. Pratt has an awful lot to learn before she can become the "watchdog" over city spending that she was elected to be.

After eight years as a councilman, Mr. Bell knows how City Hall works, even if he has yet to become its master. Only weeks after his election he had redesigned the council committees and hired his key aides. Nearly three months into her term, Ms. Pratt, who had never held elective office before, is still trying to decide how to fill important staff positions.

She says Deputy Comptroller Shirley Williams has done a "great job" helping her learn the ropes, but a decision on retaining Ms. Williams hasn't been made. She should be retained. Ms. Pratt said interviews with finalists for the key auditor's job have ended, but it may be several weeks before that post is filled. She also must name someone to run the Department of Real Estate, a post vacant since July.

The lack of a real estate chief to advise her was most glaring when the Board of Estimates recently voted to purchase the former Signet Bank Operations Center on Guilford Avenue for the police academy. Ms. Pratt knew little about the deal, since the Department of Public Works, which was handling the purchase, only apprised her of it the day before. A real estate department staff member spoke in favor of the $2.2 million purchase. Yet Ms. Pratt ended up voting against the proposal. She didn't see the merit in entering a lease-purchase agreement instead of obtaining a conventional mortgage. That's basic knowledge she must have.

Before Ms. Pratt's 1995 election, the city was without a comptroller for more than a year following Jacqueline F. McLean's resignation. Ms. Pratt admits some city officials may have gotten used to making plans to spend city money without properly consulting her office. She says she's going to change that. If she is, she must hurry and fill key vacancies with knowledgeable, dependable and trustworthy people. And she must do a better job of learning the fundamentals of city finance.

Pub Date: 3/11/96

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