City Council members with designs on Comptroller Jacqueline F. McLean's job are reining in their ambitions for now, apparently waiting until it becomes clear that yesterday's indictment will chase her from office.
"I wish I could talk about it, but I can't," said Joseph J. DiBlasi, D-6th, one of a half-dozen council members who have indicated they might be interested in the job. "But if she steps down, it is a different ballgame."
Mrs. McLean, who was accused by a grand jury of stealing more than $25,000 in city funds, has been on leave from her job since Dec. 20. In her absence, Deputy Comptroller Shirley A. Williams, a longtime city official, has been filling the post.
Whether Mrs. McLean will resign, be impeached or hold fast through possible plea bargain negotiations or a trial remained an open question.
Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who has the power to impeach Mrs. McLean, said he had not decided what to do. "My first action will be to contact [Maryland's special prosecutor] and ask for a meeting, because what I would like to know is whether he is still of the view that we should refrain from any independent action until the court proceedings are over."
There may be no pressing reason for Mr. Schmoke to move against Mrs. McLean, especially if a resignation, plea bargain or short trial is expected. In the past, some indicted city officials have held their posts with relatively little controversy until charges against them were resolved.
Among them was Walter J. Orlinsky, who was council president when he was indicted in 1982 and charged with taking more than $10,000 in bribes from a Philadelphia company that won a lucrative sludge-hauling contract. He left office only after pleading guilty nearly six months after the indictment.
J. Neil McCardell remained comptroller after he was indicted in 1953 on charges of accepting $15,000 in bribes from a construction contractor. He was acquitted later.
If Mr. Schmoke impeaches Mrs. McLean, the City Council will sit in judgment of her, and that has prompted many council members to temper their comments about the case and their interest in being comptroller.
"Only she knows if she is guilty," said Councilman Anthony J. Ambridge, D-2nd. "If she is guilty, she should resign. And if there is no resignation, the mayor should use his best judgment on impeachment."
Asked whether he was still interested in being comptroller, Mr. Ambridge said, "I think we have to wait and see. I am not the vulture circling the dying body here."
Councilman Wilbur E. "Bill" Cunningham, D-3rd, and others said that choosing a replacement for Mrs. McLean would boil down to a political battle between Mr. Schmoke and council President Mary Pat Clarke, who plans to oppose him for mayor in 1995.
He said the face-off between Baltimore's two top officials increases the likelihood that a caretaker would fill the comptroller's position until the current term expires in December 1995.
If Mrs. McLean leaves office, a new comptroller would be selected by a majority vote of the council. Others council members who have indicated interest in the job are Martin E. "Mike" Curran, D-3rd; Nicholas C. D'Adamo Jr., D-1st; and Lawrence Bell, D-4th.
Daniel P. Henson III, the city's housing commissioner and a longtime political operative for Mr. Schmoke and other candidates, said Mrs. McLean's indictment causes problems far beyond those involved in picking a possible replacement.
He called the indictment a personal tragedy for the McLean family and said it casts a pall over all city politicians.
"Any time you have an elected official, particularly a black elected official, go through a process like this, I think it casts a shadow over everybody," Mr. Henson said.