First-term City Comptroller Jacqueline F. McLean's indictment yesterday marks one of those rare times in incorporated Baltimore's 197-year history when a top elected municipal official has been charged with criminal wrongdoing.
An indictment does not mean that she is guilty. It means only that a grand jury investigation found enough evidence to suspect her of felony theft and misconduct in office.
Mrs. McLean now has several options in front of her. She may choose to defend herself at a trial. She may want to consider striking a deal with the prosecutors. Or she may try to do a combination of both.
By going on an unpaid leave of absence from her $53,000-a-year job in December, Mrs. McLean removed herself from day-to-day government. She does not have to ask for any change in her status, unless she wants to. She can continue the leave of absence until her case is resolved -- or her term runs out.
Then again, she could decide to plea-bargain with state prosecutors -- with a quick resignation a likely element in any negotiated deal.
In the meantime, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, City Council President Mary Pat Clarke and council members are not expected to demand that Mrs. McLean rush into anything.
Under the city charter, the mayor can at any time press undefined "charges" against the comptroller, who then can be removed at the will of the city council after being given a formal hearing. But since the council is also the body that selects the comptroller's replacement, it will want to avoid further complications.
An indictment of a high elected official is always a distressing development because it suggests the betrayal of public trust. Like any other defendant, Mrs. McLean must now make her own determination about her chances of successfully defending herself and restoring her reputation. In a way, she will be her own judge.