The Oklahoma Turnpike Authority willfully violated the state’s Open Meeting Act when it failed to disclose a $5 billion, bond-financed extension plan on meeting agendas earlier this year, according to the first major ruling in litigation seeking to derail the project.
Cleveland County District Court Judge Timothy Olsen ruled Thursday that OTA agendas for January and February meetings contained no reference to the ACCESS (Advancing and Connecting Communities and Economies Safely Statewide) Oklahoma plan or its proposed routes.
“No person of ordinary education and intelligence could know from the agendas that ACCESS Oklahoma was to be rolled out at the meeting and/or even that new turnpikes were being planned,” the ruling stated. “The term ‘certain turnpikes’ is so vague that the use of the term in and of itself shows an intent to deceive the citizenry of Oklahoma.”
Property owners in the path of the extensions sued OTA in May, claiming it failed to comply with the Open Meeting Act, thereby leaving them in the dark about the project.
In a statement, OTA said the 15-year project was first announced at its Dec. 7, 2021, meeting, although Olsen’s ruling noted the agency’s admission that “component projects” of the plan were “officially” unveiled at a Feb. 22 meeting.
“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,” the statement said.
It added OTA, which endeavors to conduct its mission in “an open and transparent manner,” respects 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 ruling voided actions related to the extensions taken at the two meetings by OTA’s board, including the approval of engineering and other contracts.
At the January meeting, the board approved a $200 million short-term credit line to jump-start funding for the project. The unused credit line with Wells Fargo was terminated in June after the Oklahoma Council of Bond Oversight limited its use to projects not being challenged by litigation.
OTA opted instead to pursue the issuance of $500 million of second senior lien revenue bonds and received bond oversight council approval for the debt in August on the condition the Oklahoma Supreme Court validates the debt and lawsuits challenging the extension plan are dismissed or resolved in OTA’s favor.
The state’s high court held oral arguments Nov. 28 over the validity of that debt.
The bonds are being challenged in a second lawsuit filed in Cleveland County Court in May by the group Pike Off OTA and property owners, who claim the OTA used up its “one bond issue” authorization under state statute with debt it sold in 1989.