John Simonton always knew he wanted to work in law enforcement, but it wasn’t until recently that he decided to run for sheriff.
Simonton, 53, was born in Streator, but grew up in Mendota, where one of two younger brothers still lives.
His dad worked at a telephone company, and his mom was a bookkeeper at a grocery store. It was a normal, middle-class upbringing, he says.
The boys played sports. He loved football, in particular, and later on in life was the head coach of Dixon High School’s football team during the senior season of his son Aaron.
“I miss those days,” says Simonton, who is facing Sheriff John Varga in Tuesday’s Republican primary election.
After graduating from Western Illinois University with a degree in law enforcement administration, he went to work for the Boone County Sheriff’s Department before accepting a position with the Illinois State Police.
There, Simonton climbed the ranks before joining the special operations command — the same unit for which he become commander before he retired.
“If you want to be good at your job, then you have to continue to train and continue to be mentored and learn from your leaders,” he says. “That being said, a lot of the training I attended helped me prepare to take this next step to be sheriff of Lee County. Attending two police academies and taking advantage of just about every opportunity that I could.
“I’ve had a lot of responsibilities being a patrolman and trooper that Sheriff Varga doesn’t have. I’ve already talked about the 31 years of experience, but it’s been in multiple situations and multiple jurisdictions, ... county, state police, and now with Dixon PD. So, having that county, city, and state experience, ... in conjunction with places I’ve worked with throughout the state and throughout the nation, has given me a unique experience in law enforcement.”
Pushing for more technology
Training, a subject Simonton is particularly passionate about, is a key area he sees as needing work in the Lee County Sheriff’s Department.
Simonton himself has logged more than 3,000 hours of training throughout his career, and he is a certified instructor in seven disciplines, including physical fitness, SWAT operations, critical incident management, and active shooter response.
In addition to increasing the amount of training done, Simonton plans to conduct trainings himself, to keep costs low.
Technology within the department is another issue Simonton has stressed in interviews and at two candidate forums that have been held in Dixon.
Lee County’s apparent reluctance to purchase in-car mobile computers is something he wants to fix immediately, through grants or whatever means necessary. In contrast, Whiteside County’s squad cars are already outfitted with the mobile computers.
Sheriff John Varga’s part rebuffs that idea. At a forum Tuesday, he said that “grants are not free money,” and spoke of the costs the county would incur once the grant money was gone.
Those costs, Simonton says, are the connectivity fees. He calls the computers an absolutely necessary piece of equipment for modern-day policing.
“I know the sheriff admitted the fact that they had the opportunity to purchase these on a grant, which I knew about, but he didn’t purchase them because of the maintenance cost,” Simonton said. “Once again, that’s an essential piece of equipment. That’s something we really need to look into, and it’s something I’m going to look into right away if elected and find out what monies we have and what portions of our budget we could move to pay for this connectivity fee. ... Other departments have found it, and I think we can. too, if we really do triage the budget.”
Some advantages Simonton sees with computers are secure communications and the ability to write field reports directly from the squad car, as opposed to returning to the sheriff’s department and being away from the areas where deputies are supposed to patrol.
Deputies would be able to run license checks and warrant checks without having to communicate with dispatchers, which, Simonton says, would reduce the amount of radio traffic and alleviate some of the stress on the dispatchers.
Simonton also finds fault with the sheriff’s current promotions process.
“A lot of people in our business are career-oriented,” he says. “They want to find out what the process is to promotion; they want to get the proper training, and they’re excited about that next step they want to take.”
At other agencies, he says, that promotions process is standardized. It’s something that’s done each year involving an interview through the merit commission, a written exam, and an oral interview. Points are tabulated, with additional credit for seniority or military experience, and then a list is posted publicly to show exactly where each applicant stands among all candidates.
“That’s a fair and objective way of doing it,” Simonton says. “And that’s done standard through just about all the departments that I’ve worked around or with. Well, that’s currently not being done right now.”
To prepare for his campaign, Simonton interviewed at least half of the employees in each department at the sheriff’s office. Talks were always off-duty, sometimes by phone call, he said, but the majority of people spoke with had approached him.
He says that no one he’s spoken to can recall ever seeing one of those recruit lists.
“And more importantly, no one I’ve talked to has had an evaluation in over 7 years,” he says. “So the merit commission is basically getting people that the sheriff is asking them to interview, and then he chooses that person after they go through the interview process. And that’s it. So, it’s very subjective, and that’s going to change if I’m elected.”
Fire chiefs back Simonton
Communication with other, smaller departments is another problem, Simonton says, as well as training done in conjunction with them. Claims from various Lee County authorities seem to back that up.
This week, seven area fire chiefs openly endorsed Simonton in a letter published in this newspaper.
While they didn’t say John Varga was not working well with other departments, they did say John Simonton would be the better choice for working well with other agencies, including police, fire and EMS.
“We are writing this letter today to let the citizens of Lee County know we feel John Simonton has the want and skills to make this happen,” the letter says.
At a forum on Tuesday night, Varga said he had no knowledge of what the issues were with fire agencies or with other law enforcement agencies.
During that same forum, Simonton talked about a situation with which he recently helped the Sterling Police Department.
On the recent night that a man was shot to death outside of a bar in Rock Falls, Sterling Police were apparently called in to assist Rock Falls.
After the incident, Sterling Chief Ron Potthoff asked Simonton to help with a debriefing of officers, to talk through what they had done right and what they could have done better.
Simonton agreed, and a 3-hour debriefing went well. Simonton said that that’s the mark of a good leader.
“[Varga] doesn’t have the leadership skills and the experience that I do,” Simonton said. “He’s not a certified police officer. He’s not been a leader. He’s not had the requisite training that his deputies have had, so therefore, he doesn’t know exactly what they need and how to support him.”
Occupation: Dixon police officer, trainer, adviser
Experience: 31 years in law enforcement; Dixon Police Department; Boone County Sheriff's Department; Illinois State Police
Education: Western Illinois University, bachelor of science in law enforcement administration
Family: wife, Carrie; sons Nathan, 32, and Aaron, 27; three grandchildren