Lee County Sheriff John Varga’s first exposure to the sheriff’s department came at an early age.
As a boy in Dixon, Varga grew up around his father’s auto body shop and wrecker service. By the time he was in seventh grade, he was helping his dad on wrecker calls.
He recalls that while on those calls, he first took an interest in the sheriff’s department.
“That was kind of the spark,” he said. “I was fortunate enough to have people who were decent enough to show me some things and show me how things were done, law-enforcement-wise, and that’s how the interest got started, at least.”
By the time Varga was 16, he was taking calls on his own and helping deputies in any way he could, which usually meant directing traffic.
“Back in the day, it was one of those things; everybody just helped, and that was part of it,” he said. “They’d say, ‘Go down there and stop traffic.’ And, you know, ‘OK.’ But then also try not to get run over at the same time.”
It’s been 31 years since Varga was that 16-year-old helping at the scene of car accidents, but now he’s the one in charge.
Varga is again running for the office of Lee County sheriff, seeking a third consecutive term. Opposing him in Tuesday’s Republican primary election is John Simonton, a Dixon police officer and retired Illinois State Police commander.
‘A better trained department’
Throughout his 8 years as Lee County sheriff, Varga is most proud of the advances he’s made for the department in terms of technology and training.
He credits a former sheriff, and now state senator, Tim Bivins, for providing him with a solid foundation upon which to grow the department.
“When I first came into office in 2006, Sheriff Bivins basically laid the groundwork for a very sound department, and I came in and basically took it from there,” Varga said. “We were just lacking technology; we were lacking things so we could be self-reliant and didn’t have to rely on other agencies to come in and help us do our work. Our small agencies are not 24/7, so they rely on us and they lean on us, and if they have any problems, they come to us to ask for help. So we have to make sure we can accommodate them, plus be able to do our own work as well.”
Varga is also proud of the increased training his officers have received since he has been sheriff.
“Overall we have a better-trained department, and with a better-trained department, it’s not only that you have a better-trained officer or deputy, you have a better service you can provide to the citizens,” he said. “And that’s what we do. We provide public safety. So we’re providing better services all the way around, and that’s the biggest accomplishment. We’re putting better-trained people out to do a better job for the citizens, and that’s what it really comes down to.”
For example, Lee County was among the first counties in the state to start doing active-shooter training in the courts building.
“I would say our corrections division has some of the highest-trained correctional officers in northern Illinois,” he said.
That’s something that Douglas Carlson, assistant warden at the Lee County Jail, agrees with. In a letter published in Wednesday’s paper, Carlson publicly backed Varga and spoke highly of his boss’s training initiatives.
“The correctional staff members are constantly going through training to improve their job skills,” he wrote. “The sheriff has come up with alternative methods to train the correctional staff. Sheriff Varga has purchased several training videos designed especially for corrections. Varga works closely with medical staff to obtain training areas pertaining to mental health, policy and procedures, detoxification, and suicide prevention.”
In the letter, Carlson also praised Varga for his ability to work within his budget, “to get the most training for the correctional staff with minimal cost to the taxpayers of Lee County.”
Varga: County needs more money
One big challenge for the sheriff is the county budget, Varga said.
“The county has lost landfill revenue; we’re going to need to make sure that we can keep [the county board] on task to try to find revenue to do our jobs,” Varga said. “County government doesn’t make money. It’s very evident. And my job as sheriff is not to create revenue; my job is public safety. And that’s our role in the county. If I can’t maintain what we have, and I start having cuts, I can’t help other smaller agencies as well.
“To maintain what we have and maintain what we do in the sheriff’s department is vital, and a lot of it comes down to the budget and what the county is going to do to look for other sources of revenue. Are we sitting fine now? Yes we are. ... But when that big pool of money starts dwindling, and I’m sitting here with the largest budget and the largest amount of people employed by the county – last time when they cut budgets, they cut percentages. And when you start cutting percentages out of my budget, that’s a good chunk of money.
“We need to make sure we continue to work with the board and help the board to find other ways of revenue to maintain what we have.”
Varga also hopes to begin laying plans, at least a basic groundwork, for what to do about the jail. Long a topic of discussion among county board members, the jail needs an overhaul.
“We’re having more issues, obviously, with mental health people, with people going through detoxification, and it’s tough because our jail isn’t necessarily set up for those types of inmates,” Varga said. “Are we making do? Are we making things work? Are we making changes in the jail for officer safety and inmate safety? Absolutely. But I think that’s still something that we need to have a plan for down the road.
“I know there are people in the county that might not be happy with the decisions that I’ve made, but for every decision that gets made in the sheriff’s department, or out of my office, I look at what’s in the best interest of the county.”
Occupation: Lee County sheriff
Experience: 19 years in criminal justice field; private security/civil process service; Lee County Probation Department; Lee County Sheriff's Department since 2000; Lee County sheriff since 2006
Education: Illinois State University, bachelor of science in criminal justice
Family: wife, Amy; son, Hunter, 17; daughter, Haley, 15