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Change sheriff, not the system

Multnomah County Sheriff Bernie Giusto insists upon clinging to his office even as he risks destroying the position in the process.

With Giusto refusing to resign after months of scandals and reports of poor practices within the departments he oversees, Multnomah County Chairman Ted Wheeler is stepping in with a plan to strip Giusto of his main responsibility - management of the county corrections department.

Wheeler's idea would be worth exploring in a dispassionate environment. But right now, it is impossible to discuss the best way to manage county corrections without being influenced by Giusto's frequent missteps.

Since most citizens likely want to place Giusto out of sight and out of mind, there's a risk that voters would approve Wheeler's county corrections reorganization not on its merits, but on the basis that it would deal with the immediate problem of removing power from a sheriff who has lost their confidence.

If Giusto cares about preserving the authority and credibility of the sheriff's office, he should resign before he is relieved of his responsibilities. But right now, he appears most interested in building his own defense as a state agency contemplates his decertification as a law-enforcement officer.

Consider the long term

Wheeler's plan for taking the corrections department away from the sheriff and placing it under the county chairman's authority is the more immediate of two proposals he is advancing.

His other idea is to make the sheriff an appointed, not elected, position. But that change couldn't occur before the 2010 expiration of the sheriff's term.

Wheeler says he is motivated by an absence of accountability within the corrections department. Several investigations have revealed shocking problems in the jails, including poor oversight of inmates, rampant abuse of sick leave by employees and operational costs that exceed most other systems in the nation.

As Giusto fails to act on the need for corrections reform, Wheeler understandably is becoming frustrated. So now he proposes bringing immediate accountability to the corrections department by asking voters as early as May to give the county chairman responsibility for corrections.

This is a tempting proposition.

However, before permanently altering how the corrections department is managed, county voters must ask how this arrangement would work - not for months, but for years and decades into the future.

From that perspective, we cannot say we trust county commissioners to do any better job with corrections than an elected sheriff would.

Temporary solution also possible

It would be better to change sheriffs than to change the system. That doesn't mean we wouldn't welcome further discussions about the best model for managing corrections.

But Giusto resigning and the appointment of an interim sheriff would allow that conversation to occur without the Giusto factor coloring everyone's judgment.

Even short of Giusto's resignation - and short of Wheeler's proposed permanent change - there is another way to get the sheriff out of the picture and allow Wheeler to attack the department's problems.

Giusto could voluntarily cede his corrections authority to Wheeler and allow the county chairman to manage the department temporarily.

If Giusto has any loyalty to his office and the best interests of the public in mind, he should at the very least hand over the corrections reins to Wheeler and avoid a public referendum over whether he should be the last sheriff of Multnomah County to have control of the jails.