The last two comptrollers elected by Baltimoreans provided persuasive ammunition for people who argued the city would be better off without the position. But the office was a good idea in 1857 when Mayor Thomas Swann first created the comptroller's post, and it's a good idea now.
The comptroller reviews every contract and lease that comes before the Board of Estimates and chairs city pension boards. That person must guard against questionable spending or investments that might otherwise be based on political favoritism. To do that, the city needs someone independent of the mayor or City Council. The key is electing the right person to the job.
Hyman Pressman was popular and at one time may have been the prototype comptroller. But before the self-proclaimed "watchdog" ended his 28 years in that post, he was sick and not even going through the motions of fulfilling his responsibilities. And even before Mr. Pressman's health failed, his job performance was being questioned.
During the 1987 election, challenger Thomas J.S. Waxter Jr. chided Mr. Pressman for not being vigilant enough to prevent the embezzlement of $1.1 million in city funds by John D. Callan, deputy director of the Neighborhood Progress Administration. Also during the Pressman years, a parking meter collector stole nearly a half-million dollars in coins from the city over a five-year period.
The next comptroller, Jacqueline McLean, left the office in disgrace last year after being caught using the "watchdog" position to tap the city's coffers for personal gain. Mrs. McLean created a fictitious employee she called "Michelle McCloud" so she could pay herself an extra salary. She also slipped past the Board of Estimates a 10-year lease that would have had the city Health Department renting a building she owned for $1 million.
The Baltimore City Charter Commission last year recommended keeping the comptroller's post. In hindsight, it might have also suggested giving the comptroller authority to sanction city officials whom audits show are doing a poor job of financial management. Even without that authority, however, the comptroller can disclose mismanagement and use the weight of public opinion to get a mayor to deal with spendthrift department heads.
That is, the right comptroller can do that. That person must be an astute auditor, a real watchdog, with the tenacity to publicly take on any city official who frivolously spends taxpayer money. Such a person must be immune to the political pressures that can be brought by someone who wants the comptroller to look the other way. That person must not have any personal entanglements that might make the comptroller more susceptible to temptation in office. If voters keep those things in mind, they should elect the right comptroller.