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Baltimore Sun editorial board: Bill Henry for city comptroller | COMMENTARY

Baltimore City Comptroller Joan Pratt and City Councilman Bill Henry
Baltimore City Comptroller Joan Pratt and City Councilman Bill Henry (staff)

Baltimore voters probably haven’t spent much time pondering the role of Baltimore City comptroller. Even the title, “comptroller,” which traces its origin to the late 15th century and is defined as “one who specializes in checking financial ledgers,” seems archaic and a bit stuffy. Here’s a better way to describe it: fiscal watchdog, the person who makes sure the taxpayers aren’t getting fleeced; the chief auditor. Rarely in this city’s history has that post held greater importance. What’s sometimes described as the third most powerful position in city government after mayor and City Council president, might be first right now in terms of keeping the public’s trust in accountability and transparency in government.

That’s why longtime Councilman Bill Henry, 51, of Radnor-Winston, is our choice to serve in this important, if often overlooked, post in city government. He’s not only given to restraint as a champion of term limits (a conviction he believes precluded him from running for a fourth consecutive term on the council, although no such restriction is on the books), but his experience scrutinizing the inner workings of city government and overall skepticism is just what the accountant ordered. When Mr. Henry says he will be no automatic vote on the Board of Estimates for whomever is elected mayor, we are inclined to believe him.

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The North Baltimore councilman is not a numbers cruncher by training, but that’s not exactly what the post demands. The city has accountants. What it needs is someone who will supervise them, who will modernize and update computerized auditing programs, hold elected officials and their minions accountable for their spending, and make the city’s finances far more accessible to the public. That isn’t happening now under incumbent Joan M. Pratt who has held the post for 25 years. There is little reason to believe those reforms will happen without Mr. Henry’s intervention.

Ms. Pratt, 68, has gotten much attention on the pages of this newspaper of late and not for anything she might wish to brag about. Most alarming has been her personal and financial ties to disgraced former Mayor Catherine Pugh of “Healthy Holly” fame with whom she co-owned the “2 Chic Boutique,” the Pigtown consignment shop that proved useful for Ms. Pugh’s money laundering. The comptroller signed off on a false tax return for the shop, but says she was duped by her City Hall colleague. We are inclined to believe her. Yet what does that say about the competency of a fiscal watchdog who could not spot impropriety right under her nose?

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And it does not end there. As a recent city inspector general’s review detailed, Ms. Pratt doesn’t seem inclined to ask questions of people or organizations in her circle. She was criticized for voting 30 times in the last several years for $48 million in city expenditures toward organizations with which she is connected. That includes, most notably, the sale of 15 city lots to the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church for which she serves as a trustee. A one-time slip-up? A simple failure to recuse? A failure of her staff to alert her? Perhaps. But 30 times? There is a troubling pattern of behavior here. For a “watchdog,” Ms. Pratt would seem to have lapdog tendencies.

Ms. Pratt’s name is well known to city voters who keep reelecting her year after year. No doubt she has saved city residents millions of dollars, as her campaign now boasts and voted for causes like affordable housing when given the opportunity. She certainly had abundant chances to improve city living since she’s been in the job since Kurt L. Schmoke was mayor. But it’s difficult to claim that Baltimore city government in 2020 is a shiny, well-oiled machine of efficiency and accountability under her watch. It’s time to change out some parts and see if some new oversight could get the city’s water billing to be handled competently, for example, or CitiStat can be revived as a data-driven critique of government’s effectiveness.

To set the city on that better path, to grapple with shrinking government revenues during the coronavirus pandemic and to challenge conventional wisdom, we endorse Bill Henry as Baltimore City Comptroller.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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