Why Does Baltimore Need a Comptroller, Anyway?


Two Christmas cards, limp with age, are the only things left on the desk in the Baltimore comptroller's office.

Gone are the legacies of better times, the framed photographs of Jacqueline F. McLean beaming at Nelson Mandela, Hillary Clinton, the Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., the rows of plaques and awards from civic associations across Baltimore. All of Mrs. McLean's personal mementos, the family snapshots and letters of appreciation, were taken down when she retired Tuesday.

For seven months, Deputy Comptroller Shirley Williams has been in charge as prosecutors brought corruption charges against Mrs. McLean, now under psychiatric care while awaiting trial. On Friday, a hopelessly deadlocked City Council failed to select a successor, leaving Ms. Williams at the helm.

Mrs. McLean's empty office has left some politicians and public policy experts questioning whether it needs to be filled.

The comptroller holds the third most powerful seat in government and mainly oversees audits of all city agencies. The comptroller also sits on the Board of Estimates, a panel made up of the mayor, council president, city solicitor and public works director that meets weekly to review most major city expenditures.

Baltimore Councilman Nicholas C. D'Adamo Jr. favors abolishing the comptroller's position as well as the entire Board of Estimates. Mr. D'Adamo thinks the board is pointless because the mayor controls three of the five votes.

"I'd like to see city government run in the same way as Baltimore County," says the 1st District Democrat. "I think it would serve the citizens better to have 19 council people looking at these issues instead of the comptroller and a yes board for the mayor."

His is not a popular position, however. Most political observers in Baltimore argue that the crisis only illustrates the critical role the comptroller plays as the city's financial guardian and an independent voice in a government dominated by the mayor.

"I think you really would have to think long and hard before eliminating an independently elected auditor unless you're going set up those functions under a separate authority," says Joseph T. "Jody" Landers III, who ran against Mrs. McLean for comptroller in 1991.

An 11-member commission that spent the past three years studying the structure of Baltimore government debated at length eliminating the office.

Eventually, the Baltimore City Charter Revision Commission recommended shifting two of the comptroller's main functions -- control over city real estate transactions and the purchase of insurance -- to the executive branch. But the commission decided that the city needed to retain an elected comptroller to serve as a fiscal watchdog.

"I think it is more than a full-time job to maintain the fiscal integrity of the city," says Michael Millemann, a professor at the University of Maryland Law School, who worked with the commission. "Also, Baltimore has a unique distribution of power, and the comptroller plays an important role on the Board of Estimates in diffusing the power."

The City Council declined to shift any authority from the comptroller, balking at strengthening the mayor's powers, already among the most far-reaching in the nation. Still, even with control over real estate and insurance, the comptroller has little authority compared to the past.

Baltimore's first comptroller was appointed by Mayor Thomas Swann of the Know-Nothing Party in 1857 in an attempt to provide better oversight of the burgeoning city's finances. The comptroller served as the city's chief financial officer and had control over all appropriations, auditing, contracts, tax collection and the management of city-owned property.

At the turn of the century, a reform movement threw out the city's huge but corrupt Democratic machine. One of the reform coalition's first projects was to create a new charter to reorganize the government and transform the comptroller's office into an elected position.

"Early in the century, the reformers felt that with so many machines running the government, the best way to clean up government and make it accountable was to have elected officials," says Jeff Esser, executive director of the Chicago-based Government and Finance Officers Association.

In the past 25 years, he says, the pendulum has begun to swing in the opposite direction.

"In general, there's been a sense that voters don't really know enough about these positions to know who they are voting for," Mr. Esser says. "Also, some people feel that by going through an appointment process, you make sure you're getting the skills and professionalism needed for complex tasks."

Seattle instituted sweeping changes last year that abolished the elected offices of comptroller and treasurer. The two offices often worked at odds, leading to mix-ups in major budget decisions, said Dwight Dively, the new finance director.

"The principal argument against it was the need for checks and balances," he concedes. "But we had a problem with three finance offices that reported to three separately elected officials. It was not malfeasance so much as bureaucratic stupidity."

In the first year, the city saved some $600,000 by cutting all

duplicate positions. To preserve an independent review of Seattle government, the auditing department was shifted from the comptroller's office to the City Council.

Most major cities, including New York, Philadelphia and Houston, still have elected comptrollers. In Philadelphia, the office was created in 1951 as a reform after two decades during which the city government was notorious as one of the most corrupt in the nation.

"No one actually checked the books in Philadelphia, and there was no oversight on day-to-day activity," says Philadelphia Controller Jonathan A. Saidel.

Mr. Saidel, who is elected on an alternate cycle from the mayor, believes in the importance of an independent financial guardian.

"The more the power is concentrated and no one is watching that power, the more there is the susceptibility for corruption," he says.

The main argument by those who favor keeping an independently elected comptroller in Baltimore is the need for an independent voice.

Earlier this century, charter revision commissions stripped the comptroller's office of almost all of its financial functions. In 1964, the city shifted the last budget-making powers from the comptroller to the Department of Finance.

The main role of the comptroller today is as an auditor. But the office retains a few eclectic remnants of its past powers in controlling the municipal phone exchange, the City Hall post office, real-estate transactions and insurance.

Council President Mary Pat Clarke, who offered the lone dissenting view on the Board of Estimates much of the time since Mrs. McLean went on an indefinite leave of absence, says an elected comptroller has the authority to raise questions from both branches of government.

"Absent a comptroller, the City Council president becomes the only independent voice on the board," she says. "It's much more effective when there are two separate perspectives. Many issues have been decided by a consensus around concerns raised by a comptroller."

Councilman Carl Stokes, a 2nd District Democrat who wants to take away the voting powers of the mayor's two appointees on the Board of Estimates, also argues for an "independent agent."

"We still need a third party who is auditing and holding everyone accountable," he says. "It would be very dangerous, I think, to do away with that role. If anything, I think the comptroller should probably gain a little power."

Both he and Mrs. Clarke point to the speedy passage of a new four-year contract for Superintendent Walter G. Amprey as a sign of the need for an outspoken comptroller. Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke introduced the contract, giving the superintendent an immediate $15,000 raise, as a last-minute item before the Board of Estimates two weeks ago.

But while many council members argue for the office to guarantee a separation of powers, public policy experts say in practice, comptrollers rarely actively challenge mayors.

"You can really count the number of times on one hand that the mayor and comptroller go head to head over spending money," says Marc V. Levine, director of the Center for Economic Development at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. "One criticism of the anachronistic nature of the comptroller's office is it hasn't really been performing checks and balances."

The next comptroller could strengthen his or her powers by instituting performance audits to determine whether city agencies are efficient, Mr. Levine points out.

It's a goal that has a familiar ring in Baltimore. Mr. Landers once promised to do so if elected comptroller. And so did Mrs. McLean.

JoAnna Daemmrich covers Baltimore government for The Sun.

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