Editor's note: this story has been updated to include comment from the OTA which had not been previously provided.
Nearly 200 Norman area residents have filed a lawsuit against the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority that accuses the agency of violating the state’s Open Meeting Act.
The OTA announced its Advancing and Connecting Communities and Economics Safely Statewide [ACCESS] plan Feb. 22. The $5 billion, 15-year plan includes two new toll roads in Norman.
One turnpike, known as the South Extension, will be constructed in east Norman west of Lake Thunderbird in the watershed to connect the Kickapoo Turnpike to Purcell. The second, known as the East West Connector, will run along Indian Hills Road to connect Moore, Norman, and Oklahoma City.
Ward 5 Norman City Councilor Rarchar Tortorello — whose ward will have by far the most construction — and fellow plaintiffs are represented by local attorney Stan Ward. Ward won a lawsuit against the City of Norman last year for open meeting act violations.
The lawsuit filed Wednesday takes aim at the OTA’s agendas for its meetings on Jan. 25 and Feb. 22, 2022.
Ward alleged the OTA “willfully violated the public policy of facilitating an informed citizenry regarding the Kickapoo Turnpike extension,” his petition reads. The agendas failed “to inform these plaintiffs or the public of business that OTA would be conducting as it related to an extension of the Kickapoo Turnpike located miles from [residents’] property, or the construction of a new turnpike that adversely affected their property.”
The agency’s spokesman James Poling said the OTA’s “legal team” is reviewing the lawsuit and had no further comment.
The agendas were not stated in “simple, direct and [comprehensible] language to be understood by a person of ordinary education and intelligence,” Ward said in his petition to the court.
The Jan. 25 agenda included an item for “a revolving line of credit” to finance “certain turnpike projects,” it reads.
The agenda item “fails to identify with specificity what those projects are,” Ward wrote. A second item on that same agenda described “program management services, long-range turnpike improvement and expansion program” under a contract with Poe & Associates but did not provide “constructive notice” to residents who would be affected by it.
More details on the plan were also absent from the minutes of the meeting, Ward noted.
The Feb. 4, 2022 agenda for the regularly scheduled OTA meeting mentioned a project status report, but only described it as “ACCESS Bond Project” and showed Poe & Associates as the project manager for $4.9 million with $39.7 million in awarded construction costs.
Ward also contends that Governor Kevin Stitt’s Feb. 22 announcement of new turnpikes in Norman that would reach south to Purcell did not include “any reference to the route’s location with any particularity. Nor did the published agenda have any reference to a Kickapoo turnpike extension.”
Ward accused the OTA of keeping the public “in the dark” to speed up the plan’s implementation to advance the OTA’s “own interests” in obtaining short term bank loans and bond financing “while keeping the public in the dark,” his petition to the court reads.
The omitted details of the route mean that property owners could not “prevent the unwanted forced sales of their properties,” Ward contends.
The OTA has maintained the proposed routes as shown on its website has not yet been finalized. According to the minutes of the Feb. 22 meeting, OTA Deputy Director Joe Echelle told the board that the website had been live since 11 a.m.
As reported by The Transcript, the OTA will not use the $200 million line of credit on Norman area turnpike projects.
The lawsuit is the second one filed since May 3, when Pike Off OTA, an organization dedicated to fighting the Norman area turnpikes, filed a lawsuit. The organization contends that because the Norman area turnpikes are not listed in the 1987 bill that authorized specific toll road projects, it cannot build them as proposed.
The legal challenge also contends that the OTA is not following proper bonding procedures because it did not include two turnpikes in the 1989 bond issue. The Tri-City Connector, which will connect the Kilpatrick Turnpike from State Highway 152 south to I-44 and the East West Connector should have been bonded with other projects, while the OTA seeks to issue bonds for those projects in the ACCESS Oklahoma plan, the lawsuit alleged.
Tortorello said the lawsuit comes as an emerging organization called Transportation for Oklahoma will soon form to fight the turnpike and examine transportation needs and potential solutions across the entire state.
“It’s an overarching, overreaching organization specifically looking at transportation issues in Oklahoma,” Tortorello said. “I think the turnpike issue is a bigger issue, but it’s a segway into the bigger issues of transportation in Oklahoma. It will also track the status of this lawsuit and let the plaintiffs know where we’re at.”
Tortorello added that more residents are expected to join the lawsuit.
OTA spokesman James Poling told the newspaper that the agency has been more transparent than ever.
"The Oklahoma Turnpike Authority’s December 7, 2021, announcement of a 15-year, long range plan was an attempt to be as transparent as possible," Poling said in a prepared statement. "The Authority has continued this transparency through the open and public Authority board meetings, recent public meetings with citizens in many communities, and the February 22, 2022, launch of the AccessOklahoma.com website. This long-range plan forecasts much farther than OTA’s typical five-year planning and project development window."