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Sheriff, 911 agency in dispute

Debate about hiring process for dispatchers

DIXON – The Lee County Sheriff’s Department is in a dispute with the local 911 agency over the department’s hiring process for dispatchers.

Last month, members of the 911 board questioned whether the sheriff had been following his department’s agreement with the agency, which handles dispatching for the Dixon Police and Sheriff’s departments. 

Under the pact, the sheriff has the power to hire and fire dispatchers. But the 911 agency – known formally as the Emergency Telephone System Board – can establish policies and criteria for testing and training dispatchers, with the sheriff’s consent. 

Recently, the Sheriff’s Department hired a dispatcher that came from the list of those interested in jail and road deputy positions. But 911 board members question that process, saying dispatchers’ skill sets are different than jailers and deputies. They also say a lack of communication exists between the 911 board and the sheriff.

At a May 23 meeting, the board’s discussion of the hiring process became heated. Sheriff John Varga stayed away, saying he wanted to avoid a “screaming match.”

According to meeting minutes, board Chairman Brad Sibley, a Dixon police lieutenant, said he was frustrated because the whole situation was disrespectful of the 911 agency’s director, Shelley Dallas, because she has much expertise to bring to the table but is not allowed involvement in the hiring process.

The 911 officials stressed that their objection was not with the person hired, but with the process.

In the meeting, County Board member Greg Witzleb, R-Dixon, who is the board’s liaison to the 911 agency, defended the Sheriff’s Department, saying the sheriff can do what he wants with hiring. 

County Board Chairman Rick Ketchum, D-Amboy, said at the meeting that Dallas and Varga have had disagreements for years. He said he recommended the sheriff not attend because he was fired up about the situation. 

Dallas told Ketchum she resented his remarks because she had tried to work with Varga.

The latest dispute is not the first public one between Dallas and the sheriff. A couple of years ago, the two tangled at a County Board meeting over a 911 equipment issue.

In an interview, Varga said that for decades, the Sheriff’s Department has used its list for deputies and jailers to find candidates for dispatcher positions. 

On May 20, Varga said, he had a meeting with Dallas that he thought settled the question – with his promise to start a new list in the fall. 

“We need to create a list for all positions again,” Varga said. 

He said the department is looking for people who can deal with emergency situations, which he said applies to dispatchers, jailers and road deputies. 

Ketchum said the issue was not a “big deal.” The parties’ views, he said, are not that different.

“Some people are trying to blow it out of proportion,” he said.

Ketchum said he was hoping to meet with Varga, Dallas and State’s Attorney Anna Sacco-Miller as soon as next week on the issue.

Overall, 911 board members are calling for a re-examination of their contract with the Sheriff’s Department. The contract with the Sheriff’s Department and the County Board has minimal advantages for the 911 agency, Sibley said at last month’s meeting.

Witzleb didn’t return a call for comment on this story. Dallas was out of the office Monday.

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