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Oklahoma Turnpike Authority responds to allegations of modifying public meeting agendas

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Oklahoma Turnpike Authority
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The Oklahoma Turnpike Authority says the latest legal spat over proposed turnpike routes in central Oklahoma can be chalked up to routine website management, but more questions loom on the horizon about the legality of the project.

The agency responded to allegations of improper modifications to public meeting agendas in emails to StateImpact, saying no fundamental agenda information had been altered between uploads.

The OTA is currently embroiled in legal battles over the 15-year, $5 billion ACCESS Oklahoma Turnpike project, including one suit alleging the agency violated the state’s Open Meeting Act by using unclear agenda wording and having few resources available on route locations before the project was approved.

Last month, attorneys representing more than 150 plaintiffs in that case alleged the OTA had also altered its January and February meeting agendas after the meetings had taken place. The January and February meetings were especially important because they approved the first key contracts for the ACCESS project and took place before the project’s public announcement.

But the OTA says those modifications — which plaintiffs’ attorneys discovered by analyzing the archive agenda documents’ metadata — only amounted to an addition of certification signatures and supplemental documents.

StateImpact independently verified those documents had been modified, according to metadata. StateImpact also filed an Open Records Request for the original, unaltered agendas prior to the modification and was sent a file with identical documents, with one exception: while the Motions to Adjourn are signed in the currently available files, the original agendas were unsigned.

The OTA responded to StateImpact’s request for clarification on the timeline for uploading agendas. Links to available documents from various time periods (via the Wayback Machine) are highlighted, and the OTA’s responses are paraphrased below:

  • OTA: More than 24 hours before the January and February meetings respectively, the OTA’s homepage, pikepass.com, featured a link to the Meeting Notice, which contains the date, time and place of the meeting, as well as a 5-page agenda summary and all Board handout materials (such as reports and further information on agenda items).

    • StateImpact was able to verify this for February but not for January, due to the Wayback Machine not taking a “snapshot” of the website at this time. For February, the OTA had uploaded a 244-page Meeting Notice that was accessible via a link on its homepage. It included reports and agenda items, as well as committee meeting agendas and minutes from January meetings.
  • OTA: Also before the January and February meetings, the OTA uploaded a 5-page summary agenda to its archive section [January available here, February available here]. The OTA says this was common practice at the time. 

    • StateImpact found for February (January again not available), a user on the OTA website at that time would have been able to find two differently sized files of the February agenda: one on the homepage that included the summary, plus reports, items, committee agendas and January minutes; and one in the archive that only included the summary.
  • OTA: However, in March, the OTA changed its policy to now include in the archive not only the agenda summary, but additional item information and reports. In June, the OTA was made aware the archive contained only the five-page summaries for January and February, so OTA then re-uploaded the two five-page summaries, which were now signed following the meetings, with added reports and items. Instead of five pages, January’s file grew to 47 pages and February’s grew to 52

    • “This was to be consistent with the change in practice that was started in March, which was OTA’s effort to provide more historical information of the business transacted by the OTA at its meetings,” wrote an OTA spokesperson in an email to StateImpact.

Richard Labarthe is one of the lawyers representing residents affected by the turnpike in the Open Meeting Act case, and he said the timing of the re-uploads matters.

“The real import is that they took [the archive agenda] down and then at a later point, after the lawsuit was on file, they re-uploaded it,” Labarthe said. “And this time around, they included all these additional pages.”

Labarthe said regardless of whether the content of the five-page agenda summaries differed from upload to re-upload, the confusion alone is enough to make his case.

“If one has to wade through 50 pages or 244 pages, as they’re now saying, that defeats the purpose of the Open Meeting Act — that you should be able to tell at a glance or with a relatively short read, what’s on tap? What are they going to be discussing? What are they going to be voting on?” Labarthe said. “Citizens shouldn’t have to wade through gobs and gobs of paper to try to discern the meaning of what in the world [the agency is] going to be doing.”

On the January meeting agenda, there is no mention by name of the ACCESS project, but rather “SP [Special Project]-65,” penned later in an addendum as “Long Range Turnpike Improvement and Expansion Program,” and found on page 36. That addendum includes a list of contracted services for Poe and Associates, the firm managing the program, but it does not list locations for the project.

On the February meeting agenda, the ACCESS project appears on votes to award design and right-of-way contracts for the project. In the related addendums to those voting items, found on pages 26, 28 and 29, a list of contracted services is included but does not list locations for the project.

The first public announcement of the ACCESS project was made by Gov. Kevin Stitt on Feb. 22, after the public meeting, in tandem with this press release. Citizens were then directed to the new ACCESS website, where they could now find location information for preliminary turnpike routes.

Plaintiff lawyers contend the OTA provided no opportunity for the public to reasonably understand the impact or details of the ACCESS project — or to object to it — before engineering contracts had already been approved.

“The dollar amount involved here is so big, and there are so few people at the controls, that fundamentally, it’s contrary to all notions of good, transparent, open governance,” Labarthe said. “And it’s shocking, and it’s rather shameful in our view, especially when you consider the many hundreds of people who stand to lose their dream homes and farms and homesteads without any opportunity for public comment, potential objections or questions. Isn’t that what our Oklahoma citizens are really entitled to? We think it is.”

Beth Wallis is StateImpact Oklahoma's education reporter
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