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Get a better chief; Resignation of jail superintendent offers county the chance to take a step forward

This is almost too strange to be true. After Erie County suffered jailbreaks, inmate suicides and expensive run-ins with the U.S. Justice Department and the New York State Commission of Correction, the head of the county's jail division loses his job because he lied about vandalism to his county-owned car? Well, OK, whatever it takes, but really?

However it happened, though, this is a moment for Erie County to commit to improving the management and operation of its two jails. On those matters, the county has posted a horrendous record in recent years. The worst incident was the 2006 escape of Ralph "Bucky" Phillips, who over the course of 160 days on the run murdered one state trooper and wounded two others. But it also was the scene of repeated inmate suicides, prisoners mistakenly released and mistakenly kept in custody and various code violations – matters that Sheriff Timothy B. Howard and then-County Executive Chris Collins treated as irrelevancies.

Through it all, Robert A. Koch Jr. was there. His string of luck ran out last week, when he admitted to his bosses that he gave false information on a police report about vandalism to his county car.

He reported that the car was damaged at his home in Hamburg when, actually, it was vandalized on June 1 outside the Taste of Country concert at Buffalo's Coca-Cola Field. He was there as part of the private security force when the event got out of hand after stormy weather forced headliner Eric Church to cancel his performance. Someone smashed the car's rear window and dented the side.

Koch, though, hadn't received permission to drive the car to the event and the next day, after driving the damaged car home, he led a Sheriff's Office lieutenant to write a report stating that the car was damaged outside Koch's home. The lie cost Koch his job, but it gives the county an unexpected opportunity to improve management of its jails and gives Howard a chance to improve his record as he approaches the 2013 election for sheriff.

The county needs to look for a professional who already has a record of running jails competently and efficiently. Almost certainly, that means looking outside of Erie County. Indeed, Howard should be prepared to look around the country for the right person to come in and implement best practices at the jails, where too much has gone wrong too many times in recent years.

Howard has never acknowledged the serious problems at the jail, but with the gift of Koch's self-destruction, he doesn't even have to (although it would be reassuring if he did). He just needs to take advantage of this moment and resolve to get the best person for the job.

Although he isn't directly involved, Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz could play a useful role. Since the executive and Legislature control the Sheriff's Office purse strings, Poloncarz has a way to influence the way that Howard responds to this situation. We hope he will use it to its maximum advantage.