DIXON – The Lee-Ogle Transportation System is backing off from statements that its provider agencies broke laws.
In an interview this week, Lee County State's Attorney Anna Sacco-Miller, who represents county agencies, said LOTS' transportation providers violated only the terms of grant agreements.
"There is not a criminal offense," she said.
A couple of weeks ago, Lee County released minutes from the LOTS board meeting in July, which stated that the system's executive director, Jaime Blatti, had referred to "illegal issues" in 2011.
Sauk Valley Media has obtained a recording of the LOTS board meeting in July. The recording largely reflects what was in the meeting's minutes.
In an email a couple of weeks ago, Blatti described her statement on "illegal issues" as "incorrect speculation."
Blatti 'has righted the ship'
At the July meeting, Blatti, who started her LOTS job last year, said laws "were being broken by all providers," according to the recording.
She was responding to concerns by Ogle County Board Chairman Kim Gouker. In Ogle County, Oregon's Rock River Center and Rochelle's Hub City Senior Center withdrew from the transportation system last year, saying they no longer could afford to provide public transportation in connection with LOTS.
Blatti told the board that all of her agency's providers "unlawfully" handled their local matches for federal grants. She also said Rock River Center, among other agencies, owed LOTS money.
Through a public records request, Sauk Valley Media obtained an invoice from Rock River Center, which stated that LOTS owed the center $67,000.
But Sacco-Miller said LOTS owes nothing to the center. She said she would like to explain to the center how grants work.
Rock River Center and others, Sacco-Miller said, used transportation grant money for non-transportation-related expenses, such as office supplies. Those types of expenses should be paid for with local match funds, she said.
LOTS has since put procedures in place to prevent that from happening again, which satisfied the state Department of Transportation, Sacco-Miller said.
"That's why you're seeing so much support for Jaime in the county," Assistant State's Attorney Matt Klahn said. "She has righted the ship."
As for Blatti's original contention that laws were broken, Klahn said it was an example of a non-lawyer misspeaking.
David Spacek, a state Department of Transportation official, said his agency had found no major deficiencies in how LOTS managed its grants.
In an interview last month, Blatti blamed the agency's problems on her predecessor, Roxanne Bauer, the former executive director of the Lee County Council on Aging, which, until 2010, ran the transportation system.
After Bauer left, Lee County took direct control of LOTS, as the state had urged it to do.
Sacco-Miller said Bauer and the county parted on "good terms."
Transportation agencies 'culpable'
At the board meeting in July, Geoff Vanderlin, executive director of the Lee County Council on Aging, said each of the agencies, including his own, was supposed to set aside local match money for the grants. None did, he said.
"It was to be segregated in a transportation-only fund," he said. "It was supposed to have been set aside for the time when the grants no longer covered our expenses, which happened in fiscal year 2012. ... If we're doing what we were supposed to be doing, we would have had a rainy day fund."
Instead, he said, each agency had to "suck up" more expenses.
He said his council, which runs the Dixon senior center, was just as "culpable" as the others, using its local match funds to cover other expenses.
When Sauk Valley Media reported on the minutes a couple of weeks ago, Blatti wasn't happy, which she expressed in emails to Chet Olson, a LOTS board member and Rochelle's mayor.
"[The reporter] is a very bad local reporter who will go above and beyond to make problems," she wrote in an Aug. 20 email obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. "He read the LOTS board minutes from July and is now trying to call around to run a story on LOTS.
"He is known for negative stories, half-truths and misquoting people," she said.
In another email to Olson, Blatti reported on the Lee County Board, which met the day the first story appeared about the controversy between LOTS and Rock River Center.
"At County Board this morning, everyone ignored [the reporter] and his articles, ..." she wrote. "The Chairman didn't even provide updates on our departments, knowing that if he did, another article would be in tomorrow."
After the meeting, Sauk Valley Media interviewed County Board Chairman Rick Ketchum, D-Amboy, who praised Blatti's performance.