Sheriff takes on the Mountain Area

Madera County Sheriff-Coroner Jay Varney is always on watch, even when he’s not overseeing his office of more than 100 employees.

At a coffee shop in Madera before beginning an interview with the Sierra Star, Varney noticed a possible homeless man who appeared confused and disoriented, with a gash along his arm.

“Some of these folks would stop being homeless if you could get them in a program, get them help however is best,” Varney said, after he got the man in touch with city police for assistance. “It’s in our best interest to help them because then we don’t have to deal with any situations that take place. Sometimes issues remain, but you have to try to help.”

Such homeless issues, along with drug abuse and burglaries, remain three largely-connected problems for the Mountain Area, Varney said.

To help improve efforts on those fronts, appointing Sgt. Larry Rich to a new Problem Oriented Policing position for the mountains in May, along with around 20 deputies on patrol, has helped Varney’s officers keep a strong connection between themselves and the community, which was one of his biggest messages during campaigns last year.

“You know it’s going well when an employee with the department of corrections reaches out to you and thanks you for putting Sgt. Rich out there to do good work,” Varney said. “Larry can patrol and follow up on his own cases, and gets a lot more time to do advanced follow up, particularly on homelessness. It’s a good model and it’s working well.”

Varney said there were a lot of challenges in handling homelessness and drug addiction, but ultimately, his goal was to help them improve their lives.

“If you’ve never been homeless, you can’t really picture how it feels,” Varney said. “My feeling is each community, including the Mountain Area, has to come up with its own solution. Most successful models nationwide focus on getting people a place to live, normalization, and then dealing with substance abuse issues ... If we’re going to deal with these problems, we need to help people in their area instead of shipping them out of the county or anything like that.

“All the parts have to work together,” he continued. “Yes, we have to put people in jail who need to go to jail, but we also have to recognize people who maybe have hit rock bottom, and see they need to make changes in their lives, to help them get reengaged with society.”

Varney’s first year as sheriff has followed a theme of community assistance.

Since taking over his elected position, Varney has reorganized his command structure to free up dollars for additional deputies, nearly all his staff have moved into the newly-constructed sheriff’s office on Falcon Drive in Madera to consolidate operations, and, in the near future, a county morgue may be built to shore up his duties as coroner.

Varney said in that time, his staff have been able to cooperate more with other agencies such as Cal Fire in improved handling of emergency situations through evacuations and other work.

“We are one of the few counties where emergency services is run by the sheriff’s department, and that helps us send people to help with fires or any other major problems,” Varney said. “It’s been a huge payoff having a sworn deputy in that position, who can work with other organizations in the command system.”

Varney, who spent 10 years as Chowchilla’s Chief of Police, and doubled duty as its City Manager for two stints from 2009 to 2011 and four months in 2014, said all the changes have been part of his mentality on finding win-win situations for county citizens.

“For example, I’m looking into getting a school resource officer for Chawanakee Unified School District,” Varney said, “because if I use additional budget money for a deputy, if you look at the way the district is laid out, it basically runs through all of North Fork. Essentially, not only would that mean a resource officer, but an officer on patrol in North Fork as well.”

At Bass Lake, Varney said he’s considering some policy changes to allow for increased enforcement and patrols after three watercraft wrecks over the Summer led to two deaths and multiple injuries.

Overall, Varney said his goals were to keep the office running more efficiently and ensure the best law-enforcement experience for the county.

“We would like to be able to solve every problem, but we know we can’t,” Varney said. “The attitude I want from the entire agency is we’re listening, and we’re trying to help you solve problems in your area. When we stop listening, we become part of the problem.”

Note: This is the third story in a four-part series on new county officials elected last year. The final story will be on Madera County Auditor-Controller Todd Miller.