Head of Oklahoma Turnpike Authority resigns in wake of legal opinion

The executive director of the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority, which is undertaking a $5 billion, bond-financed expansion program, resigned Wednesday after the state attorney general issued an opinion regarding the legality of holding multiple governmental offices.

The opinion served as the effective resignation of Tim Gatz, who has headed the OTA since 2016, according to a joint statement from the turnpike and the Oklahoma Department of Transportation. 

Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond released opinions that led to the resignation of the state turnpike authority’s executive director and upheld the constitutionality of a 2023 law that altered the turnpike’s governance structure.

Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office

Gatz also resigned as the state’s transportation secretary and was reappointed as ODOT’s executive director, the statement said, adding the opinion confirmed Gatz’s decisions and actions in his three roles were authorized and valid.

“The OTA Board must consider and take appropriate action to appoint a new director, while Gov. Kevin Stitt’s office will handle the transition of the secretary of transportation role,” the statement said. “The ODOT executive director position is appointed by the governor and requires state Senate confirmation.”

In his opinion, which had been requested by a state lawmaker, Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond said Gatz was eligible to serve in any of the three public offices he held, but not at the same time.

Gatz and OTA came under fire with the launching of the 15-year ACCESS (Advancing and Connecting Communities and Economies Safely Statewide) that includes turnpike extensions and spurred lawsuits by property owners in their path.

Stitt praised Gatz for his 34 years of service to the state. 

“I am disappointed that he is the victim of a pointless political attack,” the Republican governor said in a statement. “I will continue to seek his guidance as he continues to lead the Oklahoma Department of Transportation as its director.”

A second attorney general opinion, also requested by a state lawmaker, upheld the constitutionality of a 2023 state law that altered OTA’s governance structure. 

The Republican-controlled legislature overrode Stitt’s veto of House Bill 2263, which stripped the governor of his ability to appoint the entire six-member board, giving two appointments each to the governor, House speaker, and Senate president pro tempore. The law also reduced board terms to six years from eight and prohibited members from voting on any issue in which they have a direct financial interest.

Drummond found the law does not violate the state constitution’s separation of powers provision, noting the legislature can “provide for the appointment of executive offices by a person or entity other than the governor; and the bill in question is consistent with the balancing factor test used to determine the constitutionality of legislative appointments to state boards and commissions.”

OTA spokeswoman Lisa Shearer-Salim said OTA’s constitutional challenge to the law, which was filed in Oklahoma County District Court in January, is still active.

“It’s critical for the OTA Board to have constitutional clarity to ensure that all board actions are undertaken with proper legal authorization and are not subject to legal challenge — legitimate or otherwise,” she said in an email. “Those types of challenges could impact OTA’s bond ratings and potentially increase costs for financing improvements to Oklahoma’s turnpike system.”

The turnpike agency sold an initial $500 million of revenue bonds for the ACCESS program in October, following the debt’s validation by the Oklahoma Supreme Court in August. 

Shearer-Salim said another round of bonds could potentially be sold later this year. 

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