OTA Rally State Capitol

Protesters hold signs March 23 as they gather in the fourth floor rotunda during the Go Away OTA Rally at the Oklahoma State Capitol.

A pair of Cleveland County Commissioners had prior knowledge of a proposed turnpike in the Lake Thunderbird Watershed months before it was announced in February, an affidavit shows.

District 1 Commissioner Rod Cleveland, in a sworn statement submitted to the court as part of an ongoing Open Meeting Act lawsuit against the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority, declared the agency planned to build one in Norman as early as October 2021.

OTA announced plans to build two new turnpikes in Cleveland County on Feb. 22, 2022, as part of its $5 billion, 15-year long range ACCESS plan. Nearly 300 residents filed a lawsuit in May alleging the agency did not sufficiently inform the public about the projects on its January and February meeting agendas.

Stan Ward, the attorney representing the plaintiffs, filed a motion for summary judgment on Monday. Court exhibits contained in the filing include statements from local residents, including Cleveland.

“In October 2021 I spoke to the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority’s bond advisor who informed me that the OTA had a plan to extend the Kickapoo Turnpike to Cleveland County,” Cleveland’s sworn statement to the court reads.

Cleveland’s statement indicated that he contacted OTA about the plan, but Deputy Director Joe Echelle “told me this plan was a long way off from occurring.”

Cleveland said he provided a verbal statement of support for OTA’s long-range plan on Dec. 7 for a news release. Despite the lack of any mention of a turnpike in Norman during that meeting, Cleveland notes potential turnpikes in the county.

“We are fully in support of expanding the turnpike system, especially in areas such as Cleveland

and McClain counties, which need additional connections and access,” Cleveland’s statement in the Dec. 7 press release reads. “We’re looking at new and innovative ways to build partnerships that will further facilitate burgeoning growth and economic development in the area.”

Cleveland explains

On Monday, in an interview with The Transcript, Cleveland said, “I was actually excited and happy that they actually made an announcement … ready to have discussion on what they’re planning on doing, because they kept denying there was ever any (discussion) going on.”

Cleveland added that because there was no mention of any turnpike in Norman on Dec. 7 he was shocked to learn on Feb. 22 that the Kickapoo Turnpike would come through east Norman as part of the long range plan, given his previous discussion with Echelle.

“He (Echelle) said, ‘Oh we’re a good 10-25 years off before we even want to think about it,’” according to Cleveland. “I asked on another occasion if I pursue an engineering firm to look at the feasibility of a bridge going across the Canadian River across I-35 joining (State Highway) 77, would that be duplicative services or what that hamper any plans (OTA) has and he said, ‘No it wouldn’t.’”

Cleveland also revealed that he was “under the impression” from that conversation with Echelle that OTA would have to “pay our current bonds off that we already have,” he said.

Cleveland indicated the subject of a turnpike in east Norman came up during a November 2021 Cleveland County Industrial Authority meeting.

District 2 Commissioner Darry Stacy attended both meetings that month, but a review of the minutes did not include discussion on the matter. The minutes reflect only the items of action taken during the meeting and do not include other discussion.

Cleveland said in his statement to the court that he recalled Stacy approaching him about the turnpike one day in his office sometime “after Dec. 7 and before Feb. 22.”

“He said he heard the Kickapoo Extension was going to be on the west rather than the east side of Lake Thunderbird because the OTA did not want to deal with Indian land,” Cleveland’s statement reads.

In a statement to The Transcript, Stacy said he’d heard many rumors about turnpikes in Norman.

“I have heard rumors for over 10 years, before I was first elected,” Stacy said. “Between, I would estimate, October and February, I heard 156th several times, 120th, a bridge over Lake Thunderbird, East of 84th, between 60th and 72nd and around 48th. I am sure there were others I don’t remember, but nothing definitive.”

Despite more recent rumors, talk of a turnpike surfaced during a Dec. 2015 Association of Central Oklahoma Governments (ACOG) meeting, according to the minutes.

In those minutes, Cleveland asked OTA about a turnpike in the county because he was “under the impression” that OTA was interested in “developing a connection serving Cleveland County.”

OTA replied that they had no alignments for an outer loop determined. OTA provided details of its Driving Forward turnpike program to the association at the time. As reported by The Transcript, OTA did not provide its ACCESS plan to the agency during its planning period last year.

Cleveland’s actions

During a Dec. 20 commissioner meeting, Cleveland made a motion to hire engineering firm EST to “create a scope of work for feasibility study for economic impact for transportation projects in Cleveland County,” but it died for lack of a second motion, The Transcript reported.

The commissioner made the same motion on the afternoon of Feb. 22 during a regular meeting following the OTA’s morning board meeting. The minutes indicate Cleveland once again requested the contract for EST to represent the county “in various state transportation projects” given the OTA’s announcement that morning. The motion died for lack of a second after Stacy said he wanted to “talk with them before doing anything.”

Stacy’s statement to the Transcript indicated he wanted to avoid hiring a firm that had worked for OTA.

“Rod made a motion to make an impact study by EST,” Stacy’s statement reads. “I did not want the same company that was working for the OTA to do the economic impact study. I did not want any appearance of the study being potentially biased.”

Contracts for OTA listed online show EST was selected on Feb. 17 and approved on Feb. 22 by the OTA board for design services on the ACCESS plan.

Cleveland said he believes the study still needs to be done and include whether other routes could be used to avoid construction of the turnpikes.

“I’m looking out for the best interest of Cleveland County citizens and doing my job as a county commissioner and looking at all routes of transportation options there are and the best way to do it efficiently and effectively,” Cleveland said.

Cleveland said Ward asked him to provide the affidavit as “clarification” to his verbal statement which appeared in an OTA press release.

Mindy Wood covers City Hall news and notable court cases for The Transcript. Reach her at mwood@normantranscript.com or 405-416-4420.

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