OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – The Oklahoma Turnpike Authority (OTA) is changing course on a previous decision regarding releasing information for individual property transaction information.
Earlier this month, the agency refused to hand over information showing how much it had previously paid for land that was eventually used for previous turnpike expansion project.
A reporter with CNHI Oklahoma, which is the parent company to fourteen Oklahoma newspapers, asked for the information to be disclosed, but was turned down initially by the agency, who claimed state law kept it from having to release the critical financial data to the public.
This month, the OTA reversed that assessment, to keep the data concealed.
“It’s the property owners that are the stakeholders, and they need real answers to real questions,” said Dave Moore, an organizer and volunteer for Pike Off OTA.
In a statement to the station, the agency now says, in part, that the Oklahoma Open Records Act “obligates the agency to disclose the amount paid on individual real estate acquisition transactions, including the identification of the owner from whom OTA acquired property.”
An expert on the state’s open meeting and open record’s law told KFOR the agency should not have assumed they could withhold the information.
“It was an absurd exemption for the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority to claim [that] and I’m glad they finally realized that,” said Joey Senat, PhD., an Associate Professor at Oklahoma State University School of Mass Communication and Multimedia Journalism. “If that exemption would apply, then that would mean that basically any and any money that’s paid by the state or any government, by the way, in this state to anybody could be kept secret.”
“The government belongs to all of us, and that includes the people who are being paid the money. So if they’re being taken advantage of, we should know,” Senat added.
Senator Mary Boren, D-Norman added that the transparency would aid the fight to push back on the turnpikes, while calling for more action, for an issue that hits close to home. She has also asked for an audit of the OTA, to examine bond revenue and its interest rates, the payoff amount, and more information about the maturity dates.
“These are the people that I live with,” said Boren, who is a lawmaker from Norman. “It is an overwhelming burden to try to save people’s homes and to keep them from having to experience the trauma for their family and for their children,” she added.
Community advocates also acknowledged the shift, while expressing critiquing the reversal and citing expectations for next steps.
“Sunshine on the process is critical,” said Inger Giuffrida, the Executive Director for the WildCare Foundation in Noble.
“Given the enormous, costly impacts of this project on people, businesses, water quality, wildlife, wildlife habitats and the property tax base in Cleveland County, all the information regarding this project, from the prices paid for land, to the contractors hired for all phases of the projects and any potential conflicts of interest should be made public,” she added.
“People need to realize that it’s the squeaky wheel that gets the grease. And if we all start squeaking at the same time, something’s going to happen in our favor,” said Moore.