OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – The Oklahoma Turnpike Authority board unanimously voted on several resolutions in a special meeting Thursday.
The board is made up by a six-member panel appointed by the governor to a multi-year term to oversee turnpike development, among other duties.
They claim passing the measures was an effort to expeditiously address issues related to current ACCESS Oklahoma litigation.
“The board directed us at its May meeting to quickly address the litigation related to the ACCESS Oklahoma long-range plan,” said OTA Executive Director Tim Gatz in an evening release from the OTA on the meeting.
“We presented the board with resolutions it passed today that will allow us to move forward with meeting that May meeting instruction.”
Opponents to the project also told KFOR this is an attempt by the OTA to push the routes through, not yet approved by state lawmakers.
“We weren’t expecting this [surprise meeting], but we were in a way because that’s been the OTA’s playbook all along, [to] pull out these bombs and have us try to react to them,” said Norman resident Amy Cerato, also a member of the grassroots group Pike Off OTA.
“[OTA is] worried about the legislative authorization that they know they don’t have, but they’re trying to get the public to believe them,” she added, asserting that the group aims to circumvent the legal system and the legislative system.
In an interview with KFOR early Thursday, Cerato said the agency is steamrolling their way through the project, citing the OTA’s efforts to build legally unauthorized, unnecessary turnpikes by executive and bureaucratic fiat, rather than going through the democratic process.
However, Secretary Gatz countered the notion.
“We would not have included these projects if we were not confident in our legislative authority to build them,” said Gatz.
The agenda for the special meeting included several motions for approval, including a motion for an application to the Oklahoma Supreme Court to validate bonds issued for routes named in a lawsuit filed by Pike Off OTA in Cleveland County, approval for proposed design routes and also approving routes for the project – at a cost of $1 billion.
The group also took to a resolution presented by Transportation Secretary Tim Gatz authorizing the termination of the Credit Agreement with Wells Fargo Bank, National Association in a principal amount of $200 million dollars to provide interim financing for the ACCESS Oklahoma Program.
The Council of Bond Oversight had recently voted in May to grant approval to the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority to secure a $200 million revolving line of credit with Wells Fargo Bank, N.A.
“We allege in our district court lawsuit that according to the plain language of the Turnpike Enabling Statute, none of the three new [proposed] turnpikes in the ACCESS Oklahoma Plan are legally authorized to be funded and built,” said Rob Norman, a lawyer for the plaintiffs.
The group alleges that the OTA does not intend to perform the legally mandated, prudent and “thorough due diligence” to protect the due process rights of citizens.
“They know Pike Off OTA’s lawsuit is valid. They know the open records and the open meeting violation lawsuit is valid, and they’re trying to stop us at every turn. They think that if they can steamroll the citizens and get all the money they need and get the engineering firms on board, and do the work that no one will have the guts to stop them,” added Cerato.
“Everything on the agenda is problematic,” said Norman Ward 5 Councilman Rarchar Tortorello, in attendance at Thursday’s meeting.
“There’s no justification economically or anything viable that we can see that we would benefit from the placement of the turnpike,” he added.
Testifying before the board in Thursday’s meeting, Secretary Tim Gatz said the agency welcomed public and legal scrutiny.
“We respect their right to challenge our authority and our actions,” he said, also asserting that approval for the line of credit today was really a business decision of the Turnpike Authority.
“The utilization and authorization of the bonds carries us into that validation process that we think is very important because everyone wants certainty. And again, that process that we’re going to go through will bring that certainty,” he continued.
Amy Cerato and others say regardless of today’s outcome, they want a higher authority to step in for balance.
“We’re hopeful that even if they manage to get their $1 billion [bond] issue, which will do nothing but [pay off debts], and would not give them any other money for this project…[we’re] hoping someone in the state will step in and slow things down for us.
“The only way that we will win is to go through the legal process, because the only person that can stop this is the governor,” she continued, adding that she and members Pike Off OTA will push for an investigative audit of the OTA’s actions in the future. “We just need someone to stand up and hold the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority accountable.”
The next Oklahoma Turnpike Authority board meeting is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. on Tuesday, June 28.