Schmoke proposal to remove power from comptroller's office challenged


Faced with an unexpected challenge by the Baltimore City Council, the Schmoke administration is lobbying to save a proposal that would strip the comptroller's office of its power over municipal real estate transactions and the purchase of insurance.

A majority of council members rejected the proposed revision of the city charter Monday night, signaling their frustration with the control of the executive branch over virtually all aspects of the government.

Shifting two of the independently elected comptroller's main functions to the administration was among a series of recommendations by an 11-member commission that studied the structure of city government for 2 1/2 years.

The recommendation is being voted on by the council at a time when indicted Comptroller Jacqueline F. McLean faces a trial on charges of theft and misconduct in office. The council is expected to vote next week on a host of changes that represent the first comprehensive revision of the charter since 1964.

Councilman Martin O'Malley, D-3rd, said he was taken aback by the recommendation that would limit the comptroller's role mainly to overseeing audits of municipal agencies. Concerned by what he called "a power grab from the comptroller's office when there is no comptroller there to defend it," Mr. O'Malley shepherded a motion through the council to reject the change.

"I firmly believe having our real estate managed by the executive branch without any oversight would be harmful indeed," he said.

Several other council members said Monday night that they were worried the executive branch would gain even more power. Others called Mr. O'Malley's amendment to restore the comptroller's original powers in the charter a "cheap shot" at the final hour.

Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector, a 5th District Democrat who chaired the council committee that reviewed the charter changes, warned that the mayor might veto the entire revision.

Mr. O'Malley lined up nine other votes to overturn the recommended charter revision but failed to muster enough support for two other amendments that would have wrested more authority from the administration.

One would give the council greater budget-making power, and the other would reduce the majority required for an override of a mayoral veto from three-quarters to two-thirds of the 19-member council.

The motions failed after hurried lobbying efforts and caustic exchanges on the council floor.

Council Vice President Vera P. Hall accused her colleagues of "amnesia" and said the council had agreed to make any substantive changes to the charter earlier in the process.

"I think this is a cheap shot," the 5th District Democrat said, adding that it could put "the hard work of a lot of people in jeopardy."

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's legislative liaison, Peter Marudas, said yesterday that the administration wants to preserve the full charter revision.

Councilman Lawrence A. Bell III, D-4th, introduced a measure Monday night that would require the consent of four of the five members of the Board of Estimates to consider last-minute "walk-on" items. The panel that approves most expenditures has come under greater scrutiny in the wake of the scandal surrounding the indicted comptroller.

Mrs. McLean has been charged with misappropriating more than $25,000 and trying to arrange for a $1 million city lease of building she owned with her husband. Both her contract with an allegedly fictitious employee and the lease were approved as "walk-on" items.

The recommendations from the charter revision commission were developed long before there was any hint of wrongdoing by the comptroller, said Dr. Michael Millemann, a professor at the University of Maryland Law School who worked with the panel.

Also Monday night, the council decided to scale back slightly the proposed pay raises of two top officials who sit on the Board of Estimates.

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