Judge Says OTA ‘Willfully Violated’ State Law
News 9 - December 2, 2022 6:20 am
A judge ruled Thursday that the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority “willfully violated” a government transparency law when it awarded contracts for its controversial $5B turnpike expansion plan without giving proper public notice.
The ruling by Special Judge Timothy Olsen of Seminole County found contracts that the OTA awarded in January and February to be “invalid.”
“Hopefully, it sends the right message to all state agencies, not just the OTA,” Stan Ward, an attorney for the group of 246 Cleveland County residents who brought the lawsuit, said. “Citizens of this state need to be informed and advised of what’s taking place that affects them on a daily basis.”
The lawsuit focused on OTA board meetings in January and February, during which the board awarded contracts to engineering firms to begin work on ACCESS Oklahoma, a 15-year plan that included plans to build three new turnpikes in Cleveland County.
Gov. Kevin Stitt and OTA executives unveiled the plan on Feb. 22.
The agendas of the two meetings leading up to the announcement, Olsen wrote, “did not identify the bond projects the proposed resolutions were referencing but rather merely described them as “certain’ turnpike projects.”
Olsen wrote that the agenda items related to the plan contained “no reference to the ACCESS Oklahoma Program,” in violation of the Open Meetings Act.
“How can the OTA ‘officially’ unveil such a project without it being referenced anywhere on the official agenda for the meeting? The short answer is that it can’t,” Olsen wrote. “The agenda items in question seem to be the opposite of what is required by the OMA.”
The ruling will delay the rollout of the long-term turnpike expansion projects. The Turnpike Authority said Thursday it plans to re-introduce the contracts and other items related to ACCESS Oklahoma that were included in the meetings.
“We respect the Court’s decision and will go about bringing new items of business, to correct what the Court found to be deficient, for the Authority Board’s consideration,” Brenda Perry, an OTA spokesperson, told News 9 in a statement.
In her statement, Perry claimed the OTA first announced ACCESS Oklahoma at its Dec. 7, 2021 meeting, which is contrary to Olsen’s ruling.
Another attorney for the plaintiffs, Alexey Tarasov, said OTA board members didn’t even know the details of ACCESS Oklahoma before the Feb. 22 announcement.
“When we deposed members of the board of the OTA, including chairman of the board Eugene Love, it was clearly stated that none of the board members of ACCESS Oklahoma prior to when it was announced,” Tarasov said.
The ruling will likely not affect the OTA’s pending request for approval from the Oklahoma Supreme Court. The agency is asking the court to recognize its authority to build the three new turnpikes.
The OTA issued a statement soon after the decision was announced:
The Oklahoma Turnpike Authority has always endeavored to conduct its statutory mission to construct, operate, repair and maintain turnpike projects in an open and transparent manner. We respect the Court’s decision and will go about bringing new items of business, to correct what the Court found to be deficient, for the Authority Board’s consideration.
The OTA first announced the $5 Billion long-range turnpike expansion and improvement plan at the December 7, 2021 Board Meeting, and thereafter made OTA representatives available to the media in order to publicize the announcement as much as possible. The announcement was made at an early stage of development so that the public would have meaningful information about the OTA’s long-range plans and the timing of future projects.