After all it's been through in recent months, the Multnomah County sheriff's office doesn't need further uncertainty.

What it requires instead is a stable hand at the helm - a sheriff whose credibility isn't in tatters and who understands how the department operates.

That person already has been identified: Former Sheriff Bob Skipper is waiting to take over the office as soon as current Sheriff Bernie Giusto follows through on his promise to retire this year. But there is one hang-up - Giusto hasn't said exactly when that day will arrive.

For the good of the department he has led for more than five years, Giusto should set a specific retirement date and he should make sure it's before Aug. 1.

There are a number of reasons why Giusto shouldn't stick around until the fall. One of them is obvious. The earlier Giusto leaves, the sooner the sheriff's office can begin to recover from a leadership tenure marked by ongoing investigations and scathing reports of mismanagement of the county jails.

Equally pressing, however, is the Aug. 1 deadline for the county to schedule a November vote to elect a new sheriff.

If Giusto waits until after Aug. 1 to make his retirement official, a special election could not be held until March 2009 - and that's much too long for the sheriff's office to wait for stability.

Major issues to confront

This isn't solely about stability, though. The sheriff's office also has crucial decisions to make over the next few months. It will play a key part - if not the lead role - in any plan to finally open the long-vacant Wapato jail.

At the same time, the sheriff's corrections department has an immediate and documented need to improve jail operations. Already, county Chairman Ted Wheeler is working with Giusto to tackle issues such as abuse of overtime by corrections officers and lax oversight of inmates.

Given the deep roots that these problems apparently have, we don't believe the sheriff's office can long tolerate a leader so discredited that he gives a new definition to the term 'lame duck.' Nor do we believe that Skipper should approach this assignment as a caretaker. He needs to be a cleanup artist, and that's a job that will require more than a few months of work.

Keep Skipper around until 2010

To get the sheriff's office back on track and make sure it remains there, the ideal scenario would be for Skipper to step in as quickly as possible as the interim sheriff and then run in November for the remaining two years of Giusto's term. That would give the department up to two and a half years of operation under a credible, experienced leader who has good relations with his past and future employees.

At present, no qualified or eligible candidates other than Skipper have shown much interest in running for Giusto's position when it does come open.

The 68-year-old Skipper would do taxpayers a great service if he extends his commitment to the end of 2010 and restores trust in the sheriff's office along the way.

Despite all the mistakes that occurred on his watch, Giusto did make at least one good call when he designated Skipper as the person to replace him should he be unable to fulfill his term. Now, Giusto should make another wise decision and give Skipper the best shot at success - and that means retiring well before the Aug. 1 deadline.

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