Three longtime Ogle County residents, all of them law enforcement officers, are in the running for the Republican nomination for Ogle County sheriff in the March 18 primary election: incumbent Michael Harn, of Forreston, and Rochelle residents Joe Drought, chief of the Rock Valley College Police Department, and Brian VanVickle, K-9 officer with the Rochelle Police Department.
The winner likely will run unopposed in the Nov. 4 general election, because no Democrat filed for the seat this year, and no Democrat was on the ballot in 2010.
The duties of the sheriff in Ogle County are numerous and varied.
Besides the law enforcement responsibilities that go with the job, the sheriff is in charge of the jail and, in Ogle County, manages the buildings and property owned by the county, including the judicial center, courthouse, sheriff’s office, jail, Pines Road Annex, all in Oregon, and Focus House, just outside Rochelle.
The sheriff also supervises 84 employees and oversees three budgets: the Sheriff’s Department, Corrections, and Buildings & Grounds. This year, budgeted expenditures for the three total close to $7 million.
Joe Drought, 50, has been chief of police at Rock Valley College in Rockford for 17 years, where he oversees a staff of 24 that includes 10 full-time police officers, along with detectives, dispatchers and other personnel in a 24-7 operation.
He has been in law enforcement for the past 32 years, first in the U.S. Army Military Police Corps, where he served 9 years – more than 7 on active duty, the rest in the Reserves.
Drought has served in a variety of duty assignments, including patrolman, patrol supervisor, squad leader, investigator, intelligence section sergeant, and explosive detector dog handler.
“I am the only candidate who has enforced laws on three continents, as I served as an MP here in the United States, as well as in South Korea and Germany,” he said.
After leaving the Army, Drought served more than 3 years in the Ogle County Sheriff’s Department, where he was a deputy, detective, and K-9 handler. He left the department 20 years ago to take the Rock Valley job.
He is critical of the sheriff’s handling of the county’s cotow fund, and he said the incumbent’s credit card expenses were “out of control.” When it comes to the personal use of taxpayer money, he said, “You shouldn’t have to have a policy to say that’s wrong or not allowed – that’s common sense.”
Drought plans to reorganize the sheriff’s department to put more deputies on the street.
“There seems to be an emphasis on revenue-generating right now,” he said. “I’m not opposed to generating revenue, but not at the expense of having uniformed officers in our community. If you have three units on I-39 running traffic enforcement, who’s responding to calls?
“We will refocus our uniformed patrol and crime prevention efforts back into our communities and neighborhoods. We will use crime data to direct our patrol activities.”
Drought also plans to change spending practices within the department.
“I will seek to change our financial processes in a manner which promotes fiscal responsibility, accountability, and transparency,” he said.
Developing working relationships both inside and outside the department is also high on Drought’s to-do list.
“I will further develop and strengthen partnerships with other first responder and emergency management agencies at the local, state, and federal level in a manner which will provide the best response to natural and manmade disasters, as well as our more routine emergencies,” he said. “I will facilitate a department culture focused on leadership and service to our citizens through the establishment of proper command structure and policies.”
As RVC’s chief of police, Drought develops and manages budgets; negotiates union contracts; directs daily patrol operations; manages and directs criminal investigations; develops and implements emergency preparedness plans; and works cooperatively with a board of trustees, as well as other duties.
He oversees dispatchers, as well as police officers, and is responsible for the physical security and personal safety of students and staff in more than 800,000 square feet of building space at four different locations.
His training includes firearms (pistol and rifle), defensive tactics, Unified Statewide Anti-Terrorism Course, Rapid Response to Active Shooter, and basic self-defense for women and children.
“The course I am most proud of developing is our Practical Response to Active Shooter course, in which we have trained more than 1,200 personnel in the last year and a half in educational settings outside of Rock Valley College on practical measures they can take if faced with this terrible event,” Drought said.
“In Ogle County, we have conducted this training in the Rochelle, Byron, Oregon, Mount Morris and Polo School Districts.”
To enhance transparency and keep the public informed about Sheriff’s Department activities, Drought plans to turn oversight of all funds over to the county treasurer.
“The first order of business from my perspective is to put our financial practices in proper order,” he said. “Fees that are collected by the sheriff should be deposited directly with the county treasurer as the Illinois Constitution mandates.
“Additionally, expenditure reports given to the County Security Committee will include detailed invoices or receipts, so if there is a question about what was purchased, the details are readily available for immediate viewing.
“Transparency is the key to trust. ... If we are doing the right things in our service to the county residents, we want to share those successes and accomplishments,” Drought said. “I want the citizens of Ogle County to be proud of their sheriff’s office.”
Michael Harn, 52, has served 29 years with the Ogle County Sheriff’s Department, the past 3 as sheriff.
He recently weathered criticism over his handling of the department’s off-budget tow fund, which was created a couple of years ago, money from which he used to pay for car repairs, a consultant to update the department’s Facebook page, and flowers for employees, among other things. His department also spent thousands of dollars on its credit card at local restaurants for “training,” and Harn used the card for personal purchases, which he later reimbursed.
As a result of the controversy, the Ogle County Board last month diminished the sheriff’s control over how the money in that fund is spent. County ordinance had said, “Any funds collected under this division as an administrative fee shall be used at the discretion of the sheriff, and may be used for law enforcement related activities including the purchase or maintenance of police vehicles, equipment, or training.”
It now reads: “Any funds collected under this division as an administrative fee shall be deposited to the sheriff’s Tow Fund, as established by the Ogle County Board, and used at the discretion of the sheriff, and shall be used for law enforcement related activities limited to the purchase, repair, or maintenance of police vehicles, vehicle equipment, or fuel. The purchase of police vehicles, while at the discretion of the sheriff, shall be done only with the advice and consent of the county board committee to which the sheriff’s General Fund budget is reviewed on a regular, monthly basis. Monthly reports of expenditures from the Tow Fund will be made to the same committee at its regular monthly meetings.”
Harn blames the timing of the controversy on his political opponents and their supporters.
“My takeaway is very simple, and very much indicative of very good government in action,” he said. “I requested that our county board better define the guidelines for the tow fund due to the recent uproar initiated during a campaign cycle by both of my opponents.”
His major accomplishments during this first term, Harn said, are more arrests and lower costs of operation.
Under his leadership, the department has “reduced major crimes by being proactive in enforcement, and aggressive with arresting criminals. Our arrests are up by 4 times annually since I became sheriff, and warrant arrests are up over 50 percent.”
He also noted that the county jail is housing more federal prisoners, which has produced more than $1 million in income for the county, and “we have upgraded key facilities and beautified our buildings and grounds to the point where the public can now take pride in our buildings appearance,” he said.
His major issue has been improving department performance with a vastly reduced budget.
“This has not been easy, and not all employees have been happy with me, but we got there, and I am proud of each and every person who has helped us achieve so much in such a short period of time,” he said.
The department has faced operating on a budget rolled back to 2007 levels, Harn said, and he has cut spending even further, spending $1.3 million less than budgeted over the past 3 years.
“When I became sheriff, the office needed to be reorganized to perform at a higher level with less financial resources,” he said. “The economy had changed, and we needed to change the way we operated in all areas.
“I am the first to admit that forgoing raises, eliminating overtime, and asking for a good day’s work from everybody has not made me the most popular boss,” Harn said. “But I am proud that not a single employee has been laid off, and am truly proud of the way our employees have executed the mission I laid out.”
Public safety will remain his primary concern, he said, if he is elected to a second term.
“My main focus will not change,” he said. “It was, is, and always will be public safety first. We will continue to be proactive on patrol, and aggressively pursue criminals who make the mistake of preying on our citizens.”
In an effort to enhance transparency and keep the public informed about sheriff’s department activities, Harn has established a Sheriff’s Department Facebook page.
“Citizens appreciate knowing who the problem people are who are currently breaking the law in our county, and what types of crimes are being committed. We now have a way to communicate weather-related issues and road conditions,” he said.
The public has been active in posting road conditions on Facebook, as well as leads on the whereabouts of criminals.
Financial information, committee meeting minutes, and other important information is also available on the county’s website at oglecounty.org.
“I have been accessible to the public in various ways as well, by phone, email, and increasingly on Facebook,” he said.
In addition to his 3 decades with he sheriff’s office, Harn noted, he is the only candidate with experience running a jail and with managing buildings and grounds.
He cites among his crime-fighting successes his decision to redeploy deputies to provide a high-profile road presence and more traffic stops, an approach he said has led to the rise in warrant arrests.
“I would say my policy of proactive policing has worked very well. Ogle County citizens enjoy having a very safe county in which to live, work and enjoy recreation.”
Brian VanVickle, 37, has been with the Rochelle Police Department since 2009. He also has 13 years of management experience in the private sector, where his responsibilities included budgeting, inventory controls, scheduling, personnel, and training.
He has a business degree and this spring will complete a second degree in public administration with a minor in emergency management.
As an employee with the city of Rochelle he was tasked with the bidding process for vehicle purchases as well as bidding contracts for vehicle maintenance. In addition, as an elected member of the Rochelle High School Board, he helps to oversee a budget of $14 million.
That experience, he said, makes him well equipped to manage the budgets and personnel as sheriff.
“My experience is what sets me apart from the other candidates,” he said. “I am the only candidate with the private sector business experience and a degree in business. The principles I have learned will be my foundation as I move the department forward.”
He has been regularly attending sheriff’s and buildings and grounds committee meetings, along with county board meetings, he said.
When it comes to Harn’s use of the tow fund, VanVickle said: “His handling of ‘discretionary’ expenditures is of significant concern to me. ... I do not believe the taxpayers are being served in an efficient and effective manner by spending our tax dollars on ‘business’ lunches, or purchases by the sheriff of fuel when he travels, especially charges out of state or on weekends well outside the county.
“With the limited resources the county has, I believe the focus should be using those resources to provide better safety for our citizens.”
To enhance transparency and keep the public informed about Sheriff’s Department activities, VanVickle would move all department accounts to the county treasurer’s oversight.
“I will move the remaining accounts the sheriff controls without oversight to the treasurer’s office, giving full transparency to the department,” he said. “I will be open to and respond to all FOIA requests. I will be available and accountable to the citizens I represent.
“To keep the public informed, I will continue the Facebook page but without paying someone $4,000 to do so,” he said. “I also believe additional forms of communication need to be explored, including the mass calling and text messaging, and the addition of phone applications to allow for communication including a ‘crime tips’ forum.”
VanVickle also wants more deputies in the field.
“The current administration continues to promote deputies. These promotions have removed deputies from our communities and placed them in an office. This has reduced the deputies in our neighborhoods, and I have seen firsthand the increase in response times due to this short-sighted direction.”
The biggest issue facing the sheriff’s department is combating a growing trend of local drug abuse, he said. Should he be elected, among his goals, which he calls a zero-cost initiative, is creation of a countywide street crimes unit that will develop working relationships with county and regional law enforcement agencies to share information and resources to combat the problem.
“This group of highly motivated deputies and officers will be our frontline in combating drug use, drug sales, gang crimes and property crimes related to these issues,” he said.
VanVickle also plans to return deputies “into our communities, not focusing on traffic enforcement on Interstate 39.”
“While there is a time and place for traffic enforcement, I believe the taxpayers would be better served to have deputies in our community as opposed to sitting on I-39,” he said. “Deputies need to patrol our communities, township roads and the areas where our children live and play.”
He also wants to enhance school safety by bringing deputies into the schools, and to develop an Ogle County Alliance that would” bring many different elected officials, property owners, business members and clergy together to solve the problems we face as a community.”