As Camden prepares to elect a new mayor in the fall, New Jersey officials need to explain how the city's chief operating officer became the highest-salaried state-government employee, with a $220,000 annual paycheck.

The state Attorney General's Office also wants to know why the necessary approvals were not followed in awarding the salary.

Gov. Corzine appointed retired Superior Court Judge Theodore Davis to the COO job nearly two years ago. But Davis' salary was never approved by the state Economic Recovery Board, as required.

No one seems to know how the COO of the state's poorest city was awarded a six-figure salary that exceeds even the amount allotted for the governor.

The slipup came to light last month when the board was finally asked to approve the salary. Davis had already collected more than $350,000 in salary. He also gets a monthly $9,776 pension from his time in the judiciary.

Board member Rosa Ramirez and other residents on the board were outraged that the COO makes nearly 10 times the city's median household income of $23,154.

Davis offered the lame defense that he could have earned far more in the private sector. That's not the point.

The Attorney General's Office is investigating how the salary was approved, but not how the amount was determined. Taxpayers have a right to know how the figure was decided as well.

Without the recovery board's approval, the state could be left to come up with another way to approve the salary or present the Economic Recovery Board with another proposal.

Either way, this latest misstep by the state in its oversight of Camden raises troubling questions. Despite spending tens of millions of dollars, the state has done a poor job managing the city.

A 2002 law gave the state sweeping control over the city of nearly 79,000 residents and its purse strings. That includes managing its finances and installing a COO appointed by the governor.

At the same time, the state pumped $175 million into the city. The state was supposed to help the city sort out its financial troubles and eventually resume control of its local affairs.

But Camden doesn't seem to be better off today than it was seven years ago when the state seized control.

That's why last week's primary election for mayor was so crucial. The change in leadership could offer Camden a chance to take back control of its destiny.

After beating two challengers in the Democratic primary, State Sen. Dana L. Redd is the front-runner in November's race against three independent candidates expected to challenge her.

Redd must spell out a vision that would help Camden regain control over its operation and tackle its most pressing problems - shabby finances, failing schools, and rampant crime.