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Training, technology hot topics at candidates forum

Sheriff, challenger defend primary campaign positions

DIXON – Topics covered at Tuesday night’s Lee County sheriff candidates forum included familiar subject matter to the race: training, technology, the budget, and cooperation with other agencies.

The event, hosted by the Dixon Chamber of Commerce in the Dixon High School cafeteria, drew a crowd of about 200 people. Many of them wore campaign buttons reading “Simonton for Sheriff” or “Re-Elect Sheriff John R. Varga.”

Sheriff Varga praised his administration, his officers, and the county board for helping him get to where he is today. As in the last forum, he placed his focus on “maintaining what we have.”

His opponent, John Simonton, a current Dixon police officer and retired Illinois State Police commander, focused his comments on making changes within the department. As he has previously noted in the media and at the earlier forum, the main things he’d like to focus on are boosting training, increasing cooperation with other agencies, and getting better technology to deputies. Unlike Whiteside County, Lee County sheriff’s deputies are currently without mobile computers in their squad cars.

Getting them for Lee County is something Simonton considers a top priority.

“If the opportunity arises, and the grant is available, I want to make sure each squad car has a mobile data computer, and the associated costs – well worth it – are taken care of through the county board,” he said.

The idea of grants is something Varga takes umbrage with. As he sees it, grants don’t last forever, and so the ramaining costs would then fall to the Lee County Board.

With an already-tight budget, Varga is focusing on staying within it, and, as he has said numerous times, maintaining what he already has.

“My opponent continues to talk about grants,” Varga said. “Grants are not free money. We have in the past in the county tried to get grants; we have gotten grants for different things. ... The problem is that when that grant is up, the cost comes back to the county, so it’s not free money; it’s not something we can go ahead and just use at will in order to make that happen.”

As at the last forum, training was another point of contention. While Varga maintains that his deputies are very well trained, Simonton continues to question that.

“Right now, the sheriff’s department isn’t training as much as they should,” Simonton said. “They’re the lowest-trained agency in the northwest part of Illinois. They need to use the mobile training unit more. Plus, I’m an instructor in seven different disciplines. So to save money, we’ll do some in-house training, and we’ll also do some cross-training with other agencies in and around Lee County as well as the fire departments.”

Varga said he prides his agency on thinking outside the box when it comes to its training and that, despite low mobile training unit hours, that’s not all that mattters.

“The training isn’t necessarily all about the MTU,” Varga said. “We have other trainings that we’ve looked into through video, through video conferencing, through our corrections division to where we use our medical health care providers to bring in training to us so our correctional officers are better trained. It’s thinking outside the box in order to maintain what we have.”

Simonton also questioned Varga’s policy and procedure manual, something he sees as being – in its current state – insufficient.

“Right now, there’s too few policies, and some of them are outdated,” Simonton said. “But the most distrubing thing, when I talked to the employees, [is] they hadn’t seen the policies that I had through a FOIA request, so they hadn’t been trained on them. They hadn’t seen them, and they’re not aware of them.”

A question was asked, seemingly directed at Varga, in response to reports that his cooperation with smaller Lee County agencies has been less than ideal.

“I have heard [those comments] through the entire campaign,” Varga said. “I’m not really sure what the issues are with fire agencies or with other law enforcement agencies because at no time, at no time, have we ever decined anybody assistance if they needed assistance. ... We have worked with the fire agencies in reference to training, when it comes time to rapid response training we have worked with them. I’ve been to fire chiefs meetings. ... We’re certainly here to help small agencies”

Another question from the audience, this time directed at Simonton, asked how, if elected, he would separate himself from agencies like the Dixon Police Department, which has several members who are openly supporting his campaign.

“There’s been several articles in the paper and comments about me being a Dixon police officer and about how Chief [Danny] Langloss is going to take over the sheriff’s department,” he said, smiling. “If anybody knows me throughout my 31-year career, they know that no one is going to take over something that I run, first of all.

“Secondly, I’ve worked for three different agencies and worked around hundreds of others. I have worked with great leaders. ... We will share ideas. We will share in trainings. ... But, if I’m elected sheriff, I am the sheriff, and nobody else is going to run that sheriff’s department.”

Simonton and Varga are the only candidates for the Republican nomination for sheriff in the March 18 primary election. No Democrat filed for the office.

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