ARLINGTON COUNTY is no Dodge City, but suddenly this home of good and open government is looking like an outtake from "Blazing Saddles''. Just as the longtime county sheriff is about to be sworn in to his third term -- reelected after a bitter campaign against his former chief deputy -- he's the target of startling allegations by a female deputy and still more fire from nine other deputies for the political revenge he took on them. Meanwhile, back at the county office building, various county leaders are rolling their eyes skyward, shrugging and heading for cover until the potshots die down.

"I try to do my job the best I can while I'm on the job," said Sheriff James A. Gondles Jr. as he began his 13th year in office Tuesday facing a sexual harassment suit brought by a woman deputy, Debora Mulvey, and testimony that he bullied top-level staff and told two of them he had sex with women deputies and women who did business with the department. Longtime supporters are standing by the sheriff, and a circuit court judge has ordered that the file in the case be sealed.

The political crossfire erupted this week when Sheriff Gondles, a Democrat, gave nine deputies who publicly supported his Republican-backed opponent in November the choice of being demoted to the department's lowest rank or fired. Most Arlington officials have been reluctant to criticize the sheriff, since his office is not under county governmental jurisdiction anyway. These offices come under state jurisdiction and members of the county board say that Mr. Gondles can legally fire or demote as he pleases.

No matter how any of these episodes may unravel, the office of county sheriff in Virginia as constituted should have gone out with the last posse along the Potomac. The functions could and should be carried out by a county employee. But that change would require approval of the Virginia General Assembly, where the outcry for it must be at such a high pitch that it cannot be detected by the human ear. Arlington State Sen. Edward M. Holland summed up this chapter of the sheriff's story, sort of: "Let's face it, the man's just been reelected, and we're all anxious to see the sheriff's office fulfill its function. There obviously are some morale problems and it's the sheriff's responsibility to straighten them out. He's the boss, he's got to be the boss."