Residents vs OTA: Judge to rule on motions for discovery, dismissal in open record lawsuit

·3 min read

Aug. 4—Attorney Stan Ward appealed to a judge Thursday to grant his emergency motion for discovery in continuation of an Open Meeting Act lawsuit against Oklahoma Turnpike Authority — a motion Seminole County Associate District Judge Timothy Olsen said he would decide "when convenient."

OTA intends to build two new turnpikes in Cleveland County — one in east Norman in the Lake Thunderbird Watershed, and a second along Indian Hills Road as part of a $5 billion, 15-year ACCESS plan to expand the state's toll road system.

Nearly 200 residents hired Ward to file a lawsuit against OTA that claims the agency's January and February meeting agendas did not sufficiently inform the public of its plans to build toll roads in Norman. OTA argued in motions to dismiss that the state supreme court, not district court, was the proper venue, and that the lawsuit should be dismissed.

Olsen conducted a hearing on the motions to dismiss and for emergency discovery to proceed during a Thursday video conference. He did not issue a ruling at the conclusion of that hearing.

Ward told a room full of residents last month who are fighting against the Norman area turnpikes that the case has been stalled after Cleveland County's judges recused and referred the case to another judicial district.

Ward filed an emergency motion July 22 to ask the court to allow the discovery process to continue.

OTA's attorney Phillip Whaley argued to the court Thursday that the Oklahoma Supreme Court is the proper venue.

"Ultimately, the result is the Turnpike Authority has to do its job, and the legislature has provided the procedural framework to do what it does," Whaley said as he cited House Bill 1718.

Whaley argued that the bill provides "original, exclusive jurisdiction on the [state] supreme court." He also stated that for "70 years" the supreme court has held that "jurisdiction, invalidation proceedings to decide all questions of law which relate to the issuance of bonds and the construction of the associated turnpikes ... the reality is, your honor, that this court does not have jurisdiction, and therefore, the claims against OTA should be dismissed."

Ward argued that his clients are not seeking to challenge the supreme court's jurisdiction to decide the statutory authority of OTA's plans nor was the lawsuit about the validity of the agency's use of bonds to build them.

"We have made it very clear that we're proceeding under one legal theory and those are in violations of the Open Meeting Act," Ward said. "Any person or persons may bring those actions [to the district court] according to the statute."

Ward argued that the meeting agendas were not specific, Governor Kevin Stitt addressed it publicly outside the meetings.

"You can look at the agendas all day long and not see anything about this project," he argued. "Nothing. Yet, they knew the governor was going to come and address it."

In documents to the court, Ward has accused OTA of avoiding the discovery process by filing its motions to dismiss and that district court was the proper venue to hear the matter.

Thursday he noted discovery would uncover hidden parties to the OTA plans when he referred to the nearly 20 signatures on the January attendance list which were redacted.

"Without discovery, we will never know who those redacted attendees are, or why those redactions took place."

Whaley said if the lawsuit is allowed to proceed then the agency would face "serial lawsuits" because "anyone, anywhere along any tract of construction, could do this."

Mindy Wood covers City Hall news and notable court cases for The Transcript. Reach her at mwood@normantranscript.com or 405-416-4420.