OTA depositions to begin Monday

Oct. 16—Depositions in an Oklahoma Open Meeting Act lawsuit against the state's turnpike authority will begin Monday, but will not be open to the public.

Stan Ward filed a lawsuit against OTA in May on behalf of 244 clients who have accused the agency of insufficiently informing the public on its January and February meeting agendas to build turnpikes in Norman.

OTA announced ACCESS, a $5 billion, 15-year long range plan to expand and enhance the state's toll road system on Feb. 22.

The plan proposes a turnpike in east Norman in the Lake Thunderbird Watershed from Interstate 40 south to Purcell and another along Indian Hills Road.

Despite delays and setbacks to the lawsuit, including restrictions to the documents Ward's legal team can obtain, depositions of the agency's top officials will start with OTA Deputy Director Joe Echelle and Director and Transportation Secretary Tim Gatz.

"Those are the two from the authority that we have the most interest in right now," Ward said. "It's going to be a play-it-by-ear. Depending on what they say may depend on who we depose, whether we skip some depositions or take every one of them."

Ward said only four plaintiffs will be allowed to witness the depositions but proceedings would be transcribed by a court reporter.

Once transcripts are certified by the court reporter, it becomes a court record available to the public. Those deposed have 30 days to view the record before its certified, Ward's co-counsel Richard Labarthe said.

Ward said different plaintiffs would be allowed to attend during different depositions, a process which could last through Thursday.

Norman City Councilor for Ward 5, Rarchar Tortorello will be among the four plaintiffs Monday.

"I'm looking forward to hearing from the Authority and their personnel because my constituents need to know the decision-making process leading to this project," Tortorello said. "The sheer magnitude of families with questions regarding their futures can only be answered by the Authority."

OTA has also filed a motion for discovery directed to Ward's plaintiffs. The request asks them to state the date they learned of the ACCESS plan, "all material facts" on which the plaintiffs base accusations that they had "no prior warning or advisement" of the plan before reading it in the news. They are also asked to produce documents to support their accusations.

"Of course our plaintiffs, they don't maintain documents," Labarthe said. "They're just people. They don't know what all went on. It's a little curious that they want to ask all these questions in our open meeting act case."

A trial is set for Dec. 12-13 in the lawsuit.

Meanwhile OTA has asked the Oklahoma Supreme Court to assume jurisdiction of the lawsuit in light of its interpretation of state law.

The agency's attorneys argue that the high court is the exclusive venue for all legal challenges involving the agency or its plans.

Ward argued the state constitution was amended to hand civil lawsuits not involving bond procedure or the agency's use of eminent domain to the lower district court.

Judge Timothy Olsen has already ruled district court is the proper venue and should stay in his court unless the supreme court chooses to take it up.

While the high court justices have not responded to a hearing on that matter Tuesday, it did rule unanimously that it would hear the agency's bond validation application. That decision does not stay the lawsuits, the order indicated on Oct.7.

Ward said given the order it was unlikely the court would take up the case.