Bonds

Oklahoma Turnpike Authority prevails in Open Meeting Act lawsuit

A lawsuit against the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority over the initial disclosure to the general public of its $5 billion, bond-financed extension project ended in defeat Wednesday with the state Supreme Court overturning a lower court ruling that found the agency violated the Open Meeting Act.

The ruling comes as the high court continues to weigh the validity of up to $500 million of revenue bonds the turnpike authority would issue to jumpstart funding for the 15-year Advancing and Connecting Communities and Economies Safely Statewide program, billed as ACCESS Oklahoma.

The 5-3 decision concluded OTA gave sufficient notice of meeting agenda items challenged by blindsided property owners who sued the state agency in May 2022. The opinion by Justice James Winchester noted “each agenda item provided notice of the subject matter of the business that the (OTA) board transacted.”

The lack of notice of the project’s February 2022 unveiling by Gov. Kevin Stitt did not violate the act because it was for informational purposes only, the opinion added.

Dissenting justices contended the prevailing opinion defeats the act’s purpose.

“The issue is not whether the language used on the Jan. 23, 2022 and the Feb. 22, 2022 agendas met the statute’s level of specificity — the issue is whether the OTA used deceptive wording to delay revealing to the public a project that was already well known and well underway within the OTA,” the dissenting opinion by Vice Chief Justice Dustin Rowe said.

Cleveland County District Court Judge Timothy Olsen ruled in December the state agency willfully violated the Open Meeting Act, noting OTA agendas for January and February 2022 meetings contained no reference to the ACCESS plan or its proposed routes.

That ruling forced the turnpike board in January to reapprove $156 million of engineering and other contracts.

The turnpike authority said Wednesday’s ruling confirmed it complied with all requirements of the act in relation to its 2022 meetings. 

In April, OTA halted construction work on the program over concerns about municipal bond market access in the wake of ongoing litigation and an investigative audit of the agency Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond ordered in March. 

Tassie Katherine Hirschfeld, the lawsuit’s lead plaintiff, called the high court’s ruling disappointing. 

“We remain committed to improving transparency in Oklahoma and believe we will have many more opportunities to hold the OTA accountable for its poor decisions,” she said in an email.  “We look forward to the results of the investigative audit and the implementation of (House Bill) 2263, which includes additional legislative appointees to the OTA’s governing board.”

State lawmakers last week overrode Stitt’s veto of the bill, which strips the governor of his sole ability to appoint the six-member OTA board of directors, giving two appointments each to the governor, House speaker, and Senate president pro tempore, when it takes effect Nov. 1. It will also reduce new board members’ terms to six years from eight years, allow for a member’s removal for cause, and prohibit members from voting on any issue in which they have a direct financial interest.

The high court previously affirmed Judge Olsen’s dismissal on jurisdictional grounds of another lawsuit brought by property owners in 2022 that claimed OTA lacks authorization to build and bond finance the South Extension, East-West Connector, and Tri-City Connector routes.

Claims in that lawsuit are expected to be addressed by the Supreme Court when it rules on the validity of the initial ACCESS bonds. If validated, OTA would need to return to the Oklahoma Council of Bond Oversight because that body’s conditional approval of the debt expired in February.

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