Just a few months ago, it was an article of faith among the know-it-alls that the city comptroller's race would be fought between council incumbents Joseph T. "Jody" Landers III and Jacqueline F. McLean. Then the AFL-CIO's endorsement went to Mary W. Conaway, the city's register of wills and pastor of a United Methodist church. Suddenly a keen three-way race has emerged for one of the city's most important elective offices.
What does the city comptroller do? It depends on the office holder. Hyman A. Pressman, who is retiring after 28 years as city comptroller, was initially elected as a rabble-rousing activist lawyer. In his early years he grabbed headlines with his discoveries of misspent taxpayers' dollars and other irregularities. He also penned rhymes, donned funny hats and seldom missed a parade. In his waning days, he became a mere signature at the end of the Board of Estimates minutes.
Mr. Pressman's successor is likely to reassert the power of the $53,000-a-year post. That clout comes from the comptroller directing a posse of 55 auditors who, supplanted with outside experts, review city agencies' books once a year. The comptroller also runs the 11-employee city real estate department, decides who should get the government's considerable insurance business and sits on the boards of all municipal pension systems.
The comptroller's most visible role, however, is as a member of the Board of Estimates along with the mayor, the City Council president and two mayoral appointees: the city solicitor and the director of public works. That executive committee runs the city. It ratifies major contracts, shifts money from one budget account to another and listens to complaints about shoddy construction work.
Virtually all of the employees in the comptroller's office -- which also includes 23 staffers in the city's around-the-clock telephone exchange and 12 workers in the municipal mail delivery service -- are civil servants. In that sense, the new comptroller cannot stage a wholesale personnel overhaul. But the winner of the election can remold the office by changing its traditional directions and priorities.
American elections usually center on personalities rather than on programs. Each of the three Democratic candidates for comptroller presents a different personality, constituent base and philosophical approach to the office. Voters should scrutinize their proposals and past performance. But they also ought to insist on hearing from the candidates their views on such issues as overhauling the city's outdated operational structure and shrinking the size of municipal government.