CLEVELAND COUNTY, Okla. (KFOR) – The latest battle between the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority (OTA) and residents against the OTA’s most recent expansion plan was resolved in a Cleveland County courtroom Thursday.
Over 200 property owners against the OTA’s plan for a $5 billion, 15-year-long Access Oklahoma highway infrastructure project filed a lawsuit in May claiming the agency violated the state’s Open Meeting Act; the lawsuit alleged OTA failed to inform the public about the intended routes of the meeting agendas in January and February of this year.
As originally planned, pending construction would place a new turnpike along Indian Hills Road and connect Newcastle to Norman.
Construction would also extend the Kickapoo Turnpike west of Lake Thunderbird, essentially connecting the Kickapoo Turnpike to Purcell.
The suit was argued Nov. 21 in front of Cleveland County District Court Judge Timothy Olse.
In his ruling Thursday, he sided with the plaintiffs; however, the ruling does not cancel the project outright.
“The judge found that [the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority] willfully violated the Open Meeting Act, [and] what it means overall is hopefully we truly have open government in the state of Oklahoma and the citizens will be well informed and we will not have surprises such as this in the future,” said Attorney Stan Ward who filed the lawsuit on behalf of the plaintiffs.
“There were no issues of fact and dispute and so it boil down to the arguments that were being advanced. Did these agendas give reasonable notice to the public of the business to be conducted? And were those violations willful? And those are both answered in the positive,” he added.
“Without telling the public, among other things, contracts have been lit for various engineering firms that only total about $69 million that’s already occurred so we are taking the position that those contracts are invalidated and that they will not go forward,” he continued.
Following the judge’s ruling, the OTA sent the following statement to KFOR:
The Oklahoma Turnpike Authority has always endeavored to conduct its statutory mission to construct, operate, repair and maintain turnpike projects in an open and transparent manner. We respect the Court’s decision and will go about bringing new items of business, to correct what the Court found to be deficient, for the Authority Board’s consideration.
The OTA first announced the $5 Billion long-range turnpike expansion and improvement plan at the December 7, 2021 Board Meeting, and thereafter made OTA representatives available to the media in order to publicize the announcement as much as possible. The announcement was made at an early stage of development so that the public would have meaningful information about the OTA’s long-range plans and the timing of future projects.
Tassie Hirschfeld, lead plaintiff for the case said she believes the day’s development invalidates all current contracts for the project.
“We won everything, which I think is very good news,” she said in an interview with KFOR.
“These projects [were] completely illegal [and the OTA] will have to start all over again. And I don’t know that they can afford to,” she added.
Ward said the ruling sends a clear message to the OTA and other state agencies that Oklahoma citizens need to be informed regularly about business conducted on their behalf.
“We hope that Access Oklahoma will get our message: if you’re going to have a turnpike and you decide that that’s the best interest of Oklahoma, let the people who are adversely impacted by that decision know in advance so that we can speak to our legislators and build our coalitions to advance our arguments as to why they should not be constructed or whether they should be constructed in another area,” he said.
“We know the fight’s probably not over for good, but we’re here for the long run and we intend to win.”