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Judge invalidates Oklahoma Turnpike Authority ACCESS Oklahoma action

John B. Carnett
Popular Science via Getty Images

A District Court judge has dealt a setback to the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority by ruling the Authority willfully violated the Open Meeting Act with deceptive language in meeting agendas and documents during action on the ACCESS Oklahoma turnpike expansion project.


Dick Pryor: This is Capitol Insider - taking you inside politics, policy and government in Oklahoma. I'm Dick Pryor with Quorum Call publisher Shawn Ashley. Shawn, let's start with the latest on the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority's $5 billion Access Oklahoma turnpike project, which includes efforts to expand turnpikes in central Oklahoma. The Turnpike Authority's actions in approving the plan were challenged in Cleveland County District Court. What did the judge determine?

Shawn Ashley: Seminole County District Judge Timothy Olsen, who presided over the case, ruled Thursday that the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority violated the Open Meeting Act twice in its posting of agenda items related to the Access Oklahoma turnpike plan. Olsen noted the Open Meeting Act requires agenda items to be plainly worded and directly state the purpose of the meeting and that the Turnpike Authority knew the specifics of the plan in great detail. But he wrote, “the agendas for the January 25th and February 26th meetings contained nothing referencing the plan, Access Oklahoma or the proposed routes as required by the Open Meeting Act.” And he later added, “the OTA's violations meet the definition of willful.”

Dick Pryor: Judge Olsen held that the Turnpike Authority's actions in those meetings related to Access Oklahoma were invalid. So, what should we be watching for next?

Shawn Ashley: That's really up to the Turnpike Authority. It could accept the judge's decision and restart the approval process, or it could appeal the decision to the Oklahoma Supreme Court. Coincidentally, the Supreme Court heard challenges Monday to the Turnpike Authority's request for validation of the bond issue that will be used to finance the turnpike projects. Much of the opponents’ arguments focused on whether the Authority has proper authorization from the legislature to build some of the turnpikes in the plan, particularly the East-West Connector between Mustang and Norman and the Southern Extension from Purcell to I-40. The court has yet to rule in that case. The Turnpike Authority is scheduled to meet Tuesday. So perhaps we will get an indication then of how they plan to proceed.

Dick Pryor: Outgoing Oklahoma Attorney General John O'Connor on Thursday released an opinion stating he believes certain provisions in the Oklahoma Charter Schools Act are unconstitutional and should not be enforced. O'Connor's opinion referenced the part of the law that requires charter schools to be nonsectarian. Where does this AG opinion leave the charter school law?

Shawn Ashley: The opinion cites three recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions in which the court struck down state laws it said violated the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution because they discriminated against religious-backed private schools. O'Connor wrote he did not believe the U.S. Supreme Court would accept the argument that a state should be allowed to discriminate against religiously-affiliated private participants who wish to establish and operate charter schools. Now, of course, an attorney general's opinion that a statute is unconstitutional is considered advisory only until determined by an action in district court. But in the meantime, we are in the bill filing period for the 2023 legislative session. So, I would not be surprised to see a bill filed that removes the language prohibiting sectarian charter schools.

Dick Pryor: During the 2018 session, lawmakers made the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Commission an advisory panel and gave the governor authority to pick the department's executive director. Now, Senator Roger Thompson has filed a bill to undo the law. Why is he doing that?

Shawn Ashley: Thompson announced his plan to file the bill in June, saying, “my legislation will restore important oversight powers previously assigned to that agency's commission, providing a critical check and balance in how taxpayer dollars are used.” In recent years, lawmakers have filed bills that would have restricted the department's authority to close parks, sell off or transfer land, and that would have rolled back a parking pass program implemented during Jerry Winchester's tenure – Stitt’s first appointee as the agency's director. And of course, the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, the state Auditor and Inspector, and the House Investigative Committee are examining the contract between the departments and Swadley’s barbecue restaurants.

Dick Pryor: All right. Thanks, Shawn.

Shawn Ashley: You're very welcome.

Dick Pryor: And that's Capitol Insider. Until next time, with Shawn Ashley, I'm Dick Pryor.

Dick Pryor has more than 30 years of experience in public service media, having previously served as deputy director, managing editor, news manager, news anchor and host for OETA, Oklahoma’s statewide public TV network. He was named general manager of KGOU Radio in November 2016.
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