When John Varga was first elected sheriff of Lee County in 2006, no one ran against him, and the Republican coasted to victory. The same thing happened in 2010: Varga had no opponent, and he got 100 percent of the vote.
When Michael Harn was elected sheriff of Ogle County in 2010, he captured a hefty 63 percent of the vote while defeating incumbent Greg Beitel for the GOP nomination.
Four years later, however, both sheriffs went down to defeat.
Varga won only 43 percent of the vote Tuesday as challenger John Simonton prevailed.
Harn won only 35 percent of the vote in a three-way primary Tuesday as Brian VanVickle’s 36 percent took the nomination.
Varga and Harn are both able men. Both won praise from county board members for their handling of departmental budgets. Their respective county board chairmen supported them, too.
So, what happened? Why did they lose this time around?
In Varga’s case, some decisions that he made cost him support among the law enforcement community, chief of which was a news release his department issued when a suspect in a cold-case murder was arrested last year. The blunder might have alerted other suspects. No additional arrests have been made. In this instance, Varga appeared to be in too big of a hurry to take credit, which can be a costly mistake when holding an elected position.
Varga alienated fire chiefs across the county to the extent that seven signed a letter to the editor asking that voters oust him.
In Harn’s case, voters did not take kindly to his use of thousands of tax dollars for restaurant meals described as “training” sessions; his use of a county credit card for personal purchases, which were later reimbursed; and his spending of administrative tow fund money for a county fair tent, flowers for Secretaries Day, Facebook page updates, and newspaper ads touting the unspent money that he returned to the county.
Varga and Harn both believe they have done a good job as sheriff.
However, they clearly failed to live up to the expectations of voters.
What are those expectations?
Simply this: always put the public’s interest first.
Running a sheriff’s department should not be about self-promotion or setting up a fiefdom or failing to cooperate with other officials. It should be about protecting and serving the public.
No Democrats ran in Tuesday’s Lee and Ogle primaries, and Democrats generally don’t nominate a candidate afterward, so Simonton and VanVickle might start making plans to take office in December.
Simonton has pledged to initiate collaborative training with area law enforcement agencies, regularly review emergency responses to make them learning experiences, cooperate with other public safety agencies, and upgrade tools and technology.
VanVickle has pledged to start a Countywide Street Crimes Unit, return deputies to community patrols, bring deputies into the schools, and develop an Ogle County Alliance of elected officials, property owners, business members, and clergy to tackle community problems.
Everything Simonton and VanVickle do will contribute to their overall records. It’s Sauk Valley Media’s job to report on those records – when a sheriff shines and when he stumbles.
And it’s the public’s job to review those records and hold their sheriffs accountable at the ballot box – just as they did Tuesday, and just as they will do again in 2018.