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Jun 17, 2023

Jun. 2—A day after the Oklahoma Supreme Court overturned an Open Meeting Act lawsuit against the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority, residents turned their attention to another legal battle before the high court.

After justices ruled 5-3 to reverse a district court ruling that OTA violated the Open Meeting Act by not clearly stating plans to build new toll roads in Norman, an attorney for the 260 plaintiffs said an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court was not an option.

"It doesn't have a U.S. constitutional underpinning," Richard Labarthe told The Transcript. "It's state law."

Wednesday's ruling also made obsolete a lawsuit Labarthe and co-counsel Stan Ward filed to force OTA to refund money it paid engineers last year for proposed turnpike projects. At the time, a district court judge had ruled the meeting agenda in question was unlawful, Labarthe said.

Toward a distant peak

With those battles lost, plaintiffs in the Open Meeting Act lawsuit are focusing on a lawsuit filed by opposition organization Pike Off OTA, and a state audit of the agency requested by Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond.

The lawsuit, filed in Cleveland County District Court in May 2022, will be heard by the Oklahoma Supreme Court after justices agreed to hear the agency's claims.

Attorney Rob Norman's clients allege OTA violated the state's one bond rule codified in the Enabling Act, a 1987 state House bill that authorized new turnpikes and the funding mechanism.

They argue the south extension turnpike planned in the Lake Thunderbird Watershed cannot be built because it is not described in the projects authorized by the legislature in 1987.

During a state Senate Transportation Committee hearing on OTA in October, Norman submitted evidence which demonstrated two bills that would have codified the south extension failed to win support from the Legislature. The attorney told the committee the evidence was provided to the state Supreme Court.

A second argument alleges two other proposed turnpikes, the east-west connector along Indian Hills Road and the Tri-City connector from Airport Road east to Interstate 44 should have been built under one bond indenture — not in several bond packages — as has been done in the past.

OTA has argued the south extension turnpike is described in state law and that Norman has misinterpreted the one bond language. In a previous statement to The Transcript, OTA has pointed to previous approval from the Oklahoma Supreme Court, which evaluates bonds to be issued in a bond validation hearing.

Norman said the recent decision to hear the Pike Off arguments indicated that "the court is clearly taking the merits of our legal challenges very seriously," he said. "In the end, no response the OTA files with the court, and no meetings the OTA may convene, can change the ultimate fact (that) the Oklahoma Turnpike Enabling Act simply does not allow the OTA to build either the South Extension, the East-West Connector, nor the Tri-City Connector."

Norman City Councilor for Ward 5 Rarchar Tortorello said the battle isn't over. Tortorello is a plaintiff in the Open Meeting Act lawsuit.

"There's still matters pending before the court," Tortorello said. "We're not going to stop. We're going to look forward to all avenues until they're exhausted."

Despite Wednesday's setback, Amy Cerato, a plaintiff in the Pike Off lawsuit, said she and fellow organization members remain confident in the arguments before the court.

"... we stand stolidly that there is no legal authorization in the Turnpike Enabling Act for either the proposed Tri-City, East-West Connector, and Southern Extension toll roads," she said Wednesday in a statement. "We remain optimistic that the Supreme Court will agree."

The audit

In March, Attorney General Gentner Drummond requested an audit of OTA by State Auditor and Inspector Cindy Byrd following the district court ruling in the Open Meeting Act and numerous complaints about the agency's financial practices.

Attempts to reach Drummond for comment Thursday were unsuccessful.

Byrd spokesperson Andrew Speno confirmed Thursday the audit of the agency has begun.

"Field work has started," he said. "They have their marching orders, the audit is more clearly defined and now they have begun looking through records and finances."

How long it will take to complete the audit is unknown, but Speno said "two years would be unusual."

"The Epic (Charter School) audit, which was massive, took about 18 months, I think," he said. "It's impossible to say because you never know where the audit is going to lead."

OTA has said it cannot move forward with proposed turnpike plans despite Wednesday's ruling by the state Supreme Court.

The agency did not respond to a request to clarify whether the agency will be forced to wait on the outcome of the audit before entering the bond market.

Mindy Wood covers City Hall news and notable lawsuits for The Transcript. Reach her at [email protected] or 405-416-4420.

(c)2023 The Norman Transcript (Norman, Okla.)

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