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There were a few “gotcha” moments Tuesday in an otherwise civil debate between the three men seeking election as Erie County sheriff on Nov. 5.

The students and faculty at St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute, which hosted the forum, gasped when incumbent Sheriff Timothy Howard, the Republican, seemed to chide third-party candidate Bert Dunn for being a spoiler in the race. Dunn, who was the endorsed Democratic candidate in the Sept. 11 primary but narrowly lost to Richard Dobson, is running on the Law and Order line in the general election.

When asked by a student whether it was disingenuous to now campaign as an independent when he actively sought the Democratic endorsement, Dunn blamed it on the political process, noting that the two major parties usually control it, while third-party candidates are hampered by having far fewer resources.

Howard retorted: “First of all, this is not a three-party race. ... I’m also the endorsed Conservative candidate and the endorsed Independence candidate.”

“When you go for something and it’s denied you, to then denounce the process is called sour grapes,” Howard added.

A chorus of “oohs” followed, but Dunn got his revenge later.

Nor was Dobson short of an “Oh, snap” moment in the debate moderated by Ted Lina, St. Joe’s advanced placement government teacher.

The forum was a little more than 45 minutes long, but covered territory that included Howard’s opposition to the state’s Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act, conditions at the county jails and Dunn’s text-message controversy at the start of the Democratic primary season.

Dunn, a lieutenant and 14-year veteran of the Sheriff’s Office, was stung on the day he announced his Democratic candidacy after he said in a text message to a prospective supporter that he was not much of a fan of either President Obama or Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, but considered former President Ronald Reagan a hero.

The takeaway lesson for Dunn was to avoid texting because it was a format with which he was not all that familiar. Dunn’s response helped set up Dobson’s “ooh” moment in the debate.

“I can appreciate that, but it’s really what you had to say in the text that counts,” Dobson said. “That text message stands on its own. Whether he meant to send it or not, it went out, and those were his words.”

The three candidates affirmed their differing stances on enforcement of the SAFE Act.

“In every police officer’s oath of office, the very first thing we raise our hand to is we’re sworn to uphold the Constitution of the United States. Everything else comes after that,” said Howard, who has said he won’t enforce the act.

“So any time there’s a debate between the state and the federal Constitution, we’ve been taught and how it should be, the Constitution prevails,” Howard added.

Dobson said: “As police officers, we aspire to uphold the Constitution. The second part of our oath is we will enforce all of the laws of the state of New York. ... For a police officer to decide which laws are Constitutional and which laws are not is abrogating the power and authority of our judicial system.”

Dunn said he was definitely not in favor of many elements of the SAFE Act, but “it’s really not up to us as police officers whether to enforce and not enforce. There’s a lot of laws on the books. We don’t always agree with all of them, but we end up doing our duty.”

While Howard insisted that conditions at the county jail were improving with the addition of more county resources, he was hammered by his two opponents.

“The situation in the Holding Center for the past few years, especially the suicides and escapes from the correctional facility, is unconscionable. The sheriff has been in office approximately eight years. That problem should have been addressed long ago,” said Dobson, a retired sheriff’s lieutenant.

Howard blamed the county for not providing enough resources in prior years and said conditions have improved as more resources were made available.

“The jail certainly is dealing with the suicide problem. ... The Holding Center is a much better facility now than was it was four years ago,” he said.

But Dunn said Howard had plenty of time to fix the problems and waited until the federal Department of Justice pressured the county. Dunn questioned why Howard has not been more proactive.

“Well, he’s waiting for the Department of Justice to come in and tell him how to do it,” Dunn said, drawing more “ooohs” from the students.

“If the sheriff was doing a great job, I wouldn’t run against him,” Dunn added.

email: hmcneil@buffnews.com