FRANKLIN GROVE – About 13 people – friends, family, and supporters of John Simonton – gathered at Franklin Grove’s Lincolnway Cafe early Monday morning, braving hazardous road conditions to come out and support the man they think should be Lee County’s next sheriff.
Simonton, an officer with the Dixon Police Department, was dressed in a denim shirt embroidered with “John Simonton for Sheriff.”
The group of people drank coffee and chatted among themselves as Simonton made his rounds, introducing himself to people eating breakfast and sipping on their morning coffee.
Among the group of people who showed up to support him were Dixon Police Department lieutenants Brad Sibley and Clay Whelan. Also there was Shelley Dallas, the director of Lee County’s 911 agency.
Two employees of the Lee County Sheriff’s Department were there, too, to show their support for Simonton as he challenges incumbent John Varga, but declined to be interviewed or photographed.
Both candidates are Republican, and there are no Democractic challengers for the March 18 primary election.
Simonton, a retired Illinois State Police lieutenant, was also joined by his wife, Carrie, who sported a blue polo similar to her husband’s.
Simonton, originally from Mendota, climbed the state police ranks to commander of the special operations command, the title he held when he retired.
“I didn’t set out to run for sheriff when I retired from the state police in 2010,” he said.
At first, he set out to help with training. But then, as he tells it, the Dixon Police Department needed some help with their patrol numbers and with training.
“Along the way, I had heard that there were some issues with the sheriff’s department in regard to their relationships with other agencies, and that the deputies were not getting the training that they needed,” he said.
He then went to Varga to offer his services, and says he never heard back.
That’s when he was hired by the Dixon Police Department.
He then said he contacted Varga again. After spending some time training the tactical team, Simonton brought up the idea of blending the two agencies’ tactical teams together, to make them more of a regional team.
“My long-range thought is for us to start training together, so let’s start with the tactical teams,” he said.
Simonton says, again, he never heard back.
“So now I’m getting more and more serious about trying to do something different with the sheriff’s department, and just improving their relationships throughout the county,” he said. “The only way to do that is running for sheriff. And, so, lo and behold, here I am.”
Other issues he raised included a lack of computers in squad cars, insufficient training, and what he sees as being an outdated set of policies.
“There’s a lot of changes that need to be with the sheriff’s department from a leadership perspective,” Sibley said. “Not the least of which is getting along with other organizations and developing relationships with other public safety entities throughout the county, and that is not getting done.”
“John Varga definitely lacks the experience for his position,” Whelan said. “He’s never been a police officer; he’s never been out there working an investigation. I’ve known John Varga for a very long time ... He’s a nice guy. Just, unfortunately, I think he’s unqualified for the position.”
When the event began, a sign promoting Varga, could be seen just outside the cafe.
It was later found out that the sign had been deliberately placed there just before Simonton’s group was to arrive. By the end of the meet and greet, a Simonton sign had been placed in the pile of snow right next to the Varga one.