Hyman A. Pressman 'Fiscal Watchdog': Long-time comptroller grabbed attention and used it.

March 16, 1996

FEW POLITICIANS have put their stamp on an era without holding chief executive office as forcefully as Hyman A. Pressman, who served as city comptroller from 1963 until 1991. In his time, Mr. Pressman truly was, as he said, the "fiscal watchdog" of Baltimore. Zestfully colorful and corny, his power rested on being able to engage public attention and then focus it.

Was a contract going to a high bidder, were officials illegally raising their own salaries, was the builder inflating costs of construction? Mr. Pressman got these things talked about, examined and sometimes corrected.

Mr. Pressman, who died yesterday, began his contribution as civic gadfly writing acerbic letters to the editor, often about waste of dollars. He ran for offices and lost. He wrote doggerel verse and folks laughed, so he wrote more, demanding the microphone at every civic occasion with a few appropriate lines that always rhymed but rarely scanned. If the band played, he found a partner and danced. If there was a parade he marched with an exaggerated step, the people cheered and he kicked higher. He wore silly hats.

Mr. Pressman may not have invented the taxpayer's lawsuit, but he perfected the art form, filing more than 50, some of which saved * taxpayers money. A serious, conservative man despite the hoopla, he employed highly capable professional staff, particularly the city auditor. They checked the books; he wrote the press releases. He would willingly give a terse quote about anything, long before sound bites.

Mr. Pressman was comptroller too long. In his last couple of terms, he did not give the mayor fits. There were scandals he should have caught and didn't. But in his prime, Hyman A. Pressman set a standard of watch-doggedness that all jurisdictions sorely need.

Somewhere in the distance a band is playing, a peppy little man is kicking up his heels and doffing his hat and reading silly verses and unpadding a shameless contract. The distance, sad to relate, is in time long gone.

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