OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – The new year brought new resolutions from the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority as they voted to reauthorize around $42 million dollars in contracts related to the highly contested Access Oklahoma Project.
During the meeting, the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority board approved five agenda items related to corrective action regarding the ACCESS Oklahoma plan, including re-approving multiple consultant contracts, and adding the full scope of the contracts, according to a release by the agency early Tuesday evening.
The board, a six-member panel appointed by the governor to an eight-year term to oversee turnpike development, awards project contracts for road and bridge construction on a monthly basis.
The project’s been off track since a Cleveland County court ruling late last year declared the agency violated the state’s Open Meeting Act, putting plans for the project on pause.
“The court could only grant invalidation of board action approving. So there has to be a remedy [and this vote] was the corrective action that we’ve taken to our board to approve new agenda items, to approve contracts,” said OTA counsel Eric Lair.
Consequently, the board’s previous votes on the contracts were voided by the judge’s ruling in the Open Meeting Act lawsuit.
“It’s very important in regard of the Open Meeting lawsuit’s ruling that we bring corrective actions back to the board as expeditiously as possible,” said Secretary of Transportation and OTA Executive Director Tim Gatz in comments released by OTA representatives, on his behalf.
“We believe these steps are compliant with what Judge Olsen found to be lacking in previous agenda items.”
But the affirmative vote across the board was met with community outcry in a session that allowed for public comment for the first time.
While the transportation agency said today’s votes were part of a plan to correct the wrong, the other side said it is another effort to steamroll any future opposition.
Protestors said the OTA is trying to circumvent the Open Meetings Violation Lawsuit by re-approving all previously invalidated contracts at the regular January meeting.
“Stop the madness. You can’t just come along anymore these days and tell people to get out of the way when unless you’ve got a really good reason and they don’t have one,” said Dave Moore, part of the PIKE OFF OTA grassroots movement, fighting turnpike expansion in Oklahoma.
“How does a board ethically vote on approving millions and millions of dollars when you have no idea what that money is going to be spent on? Is this continued secret behavior by the leadership willful intent or lack of competence?” asked Amy Cerato during a public comment period.
Cerato has been an outspoken opponent to the Access Oklahoma Project and a currently a plaintiff in the lawsuits aimed at stopping the previously planned construction.
“We knew the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority was going to rush to try to mitigate their willful violation of the Open Meetings Act, but we didn’t realize it was going to happen the day after a two week holiday vacation when people really were with their families and celebrating and trying to forget about the disaster that is being rained down on Cleveland County,” she added.
On Monday, she joined lawsuit lead plaintiff Tassie Hirschfeld and Norman City Council, Ward 5 councilman Rarchar Tortorello, calling on Governor Stitt to replace Secretary of Transportation Tim Gatz and Oklahoma Turnpike Authority Deputy Director Joe Echelle, stating that Gatz and Echelle have demonstrated “their inability or unwillingness to follow the law” and should be replaced.
Cerato said the resolutions were a “manifesto of defiance” by the OTA.
“They don’t agree with the ruling. They don’t think they have to fix anything. And what they’re doing right now is rubber stamping the contracts again after a year and adding more money to those contracts and telling their contractors go full steam ahead,” she added.
The agency is also waiting on a Supreme Court Ruling, following a hearing for oral arguments last November regarding the expansion plan, between Oklahoma Turnpike Authority and Pike Off OTA, a group that opposes the project.
The Supreme Court does not have a date scheduled for when a decision will be made.
Board members also approved the first annual Authority Payment of $4 million related to the federal loan for the Gilcrease Expressway Turnpike.
The next Oklahoma Turnpike Authority board meeting is scheduled for February 1st.