Independence from Philadelphia's power structure and those who make their fortunes from it is essential for a watchdog with bite. The mission of the city controller, an institutional watchdog, is to keep the public's money from being pocketed by the corrupt or frittered away by the incompetent. The controller has the power to review the spending and management of city departments, stop payments on questionable contracts, and deter bad behavior.

The current controller, Alan Butkovitz, is facing activist and repeat rival Brett Mandel and attorney Mark Zecca in the May 21 Democratic primary. Given Democrats' 6-1 registration advantage in the city, the winner will be the substantial favorite in the fall against Republican Terry Tracy, who is unopposed for his party's nomination.

Butkovitz, 61, of Northeast Philadelphia, is seeking his third four-year term as controller. During his tenure, his office has detailed the ethical lapses of charter schools, while his forensic audit of the Sheriff's Office found widespread failures to account for the people's money, sparking a federal investigation.

Butkovitz served 15 years as a state representative before he was first elected controller in 2005. He is also a ward leader, and as such is hardwired into the city's Democratic Party structure. That means he is beholden to the party and its chairman, U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, who openly favors ward leaders for elected offices even when others may be more qualified. Despite decades of control in Philadelphia, the party has not aimed for much more than winning offices and doling out patronage.

It is time to aim higher. That's why The Inquirer endorses BRETT MANDEL for the Democratic nomination for city controller.

Mandel, 44, of Center City, is independent, experienced, and virtually bursting with creative ideas. He promises to follow up vigorously on audits, and to post all city contracts online so that Philadelphians can see where their tax dollars are going. And he says he would encourage the public to report on how well these companies are doing their jobs.

The Mandel campaign created a user-friendly "Bulldog Budget" website to show how the public could be empowered to review the city government's finances. That sort of clever, refreshing thinking about transparency could engage more citizens to watchdog their government.

Mandel's background as a tax activist and as a senior analyst under a previous city controller lends him further credibility as a candidate for the job.

He has promised to resign from his low-level party position as a committeeman if elected. He should also temper his sometimes overheated approach. His campaign ad implying that Butkovitz is to blame for the city's school funding crisis, for example, was unfair.

Nevertheless, Mandel's zealous independence makes him the clear choice for voters who want to challenge the powers that be in Philadelphia.