Monday's Shawnee City Commission meeting became tense as a decade-old topic packing opposition made its way back onto the agenda — the proposed Interstate 40/Bryan Street interchange. Mayor Richard Finley and Ward 5 City Commissioner Lesa Shaw ending up in a heated exchange before the meeting's end.

Monday's Shawnee City Commission meeting became tense as a decade-old topic packing opposition made its way back onto the agenda — the proposed Interstate 40/Bryan Street interchange.

Mayor Richard Finley and Ward 5 City Commissioner Lesa Shaw ending up in a heated exchange before the meeting's end.

Finley slated the item for discussion after receiving a number of requests for an update on the issue.

Finley said that Shawnee historically has had about 25,000 residents.

“Going back many years, we have, traditionally, had extraordinary meetings to pursue an aggressive growth strategy,” he said. “It's true that economic development efforts of the late '60s and '70s solidified that population and began to set the stage for modest growth.”

Shawnee continued to hover in that population range until the turn of the century, he said.

“Both the Kickapoo and Harrison exits have existed since inception,” Finley said.

This current saga, he said, started about four mayors ago, when Chuck Mills began to entertain the idea of requesting an additional exit off I-40 onto Bryan Street.

“(Mills) met with the Oklahoma Department of Transportation (ODOT), to engage with them a preliminary feasibility study,” Finley said.

The traffic studies of I-40, as well as Harrison, indicated positive feasibility, he said.

Finley said it was his understanding that much of the original improvement of Bryan Street work was made — at least in part — in an effort to ease some of the traffic off Harrison.

“An open meeting was held at Grove school to discuss the project and at that time tribal law attorney Truman Carter was the principle objector, Finley said.

“I was there, and the vast majority of comments was favorable,” he said.

In April 2010, then-Sac and Fox Nation Principal Chief George Thurman — in a letter to ODOT — said the project would have a profound, adverse impact on the historical, cultural and traditional practices and activities, Finley explained; and the Tribe formally expressed its objection in June 2010.

Because of that, the project then succumbed to an indefinite suspended status, he said.

Then other tribes shared support of the Sac and Fox objection, Finley said.

Most recently, he said the Sac and Fox's new principal chief, Kay Rhoads, was approached by the city to reconsider the Tribe's position.

A meeting was then held, where it was suggested the exit be moved to Brangus Road.

“Existing traffic studies do not support an exit on Brangus, Leo or Acme roads,” Finley said.

He said it is his understanding that the proposed improvements do not intrude on any tribal lands.

ODOT has presently allocated $1.3 million toward the next step of the project — funds which cannot be shifted to another project, Finley said.

“It should be noted that the next step is merely a step in the process in the final determination and would depend on the concurrence of the Tribe and the successful completion of the feasibility engineering study by ODOT,” he said.

Finley said, “We were successful in arranging a meeting with the business committee who has the final say.”

It was strongly noted that the withdrawal of the rejection letter merely allows further engineering. It is in no way a final approval, he said.

Finley said he was told he would have an answer within two weeks.

“There is an 8-year plan update by ODOT coming Sept. 10,” he said. “It's entirely possible that failing to receive the permission letter from Sac and Fox may cause the project to not remain on the plan.”

Finley said his sole interest in the project is on the grounds of economic development.

“We survive at the city exclusively on sales tax,” he said. “We estimate that approximately 70 percent of our sales tax receipts come from north of MacArthur Street. It's fairly obvious when you look at our numbers that if we're going to expand, it's going to be north.”

Finley said the proposed exit represents low-hanging fruit.

The exit could open up two or three miles of economic development in the area between I-40 and 45th Street and Bryan and Kickapoo, he said — not to mention what it might open up to the north of the interstate.

To date, a letter has not been received by anyone, Finley said.

“That's where we are,” he said. “They have a Tribal election, I believe on Aug. 26, and a couple members of the business committee are in a runoff to retain their positions.”

We've been told the chief has the votes to withdraw the objection, he said.

At that point, the floor opened and longtime dissenter of the project Shaw said, “Here is where we are going to have some difference, mayor.”

She said the commission never authorized or approved any type of meeting with the Sac and Fox Nation to which she was aware.

Finley responded, “the project has been endorsed by the city commission,” citing an adopted resolution from commissioners in March 2010.

“I'm the one who did not invite you to the meeting, and if there's someone you need to jump on about it, then it's me,” he said. “I didn't invite you intentionally, because I felt like I knew your opposition for the project and I felt like you would poison the well.”

He then added, “while we're on the subject, I think your comments to (City Manager) Justin (Erickson) at the last meeting were totally inappropriate — in terms of we evaluate the actions of personnel in executive session...”

Shaw fired back, saying she didn't appreciate (Finley's) comments and cited there were several factors from a tribal perspective that needed to be considered — listing Indian sacred sites and Religious Restoration Act of 1993.

“I didn't say anything about what the causes were,” he said.

She said Finley was pressuring the tribes — to which he agreed.

“But it's their people that's making this decision,” she said. “Let them do it without your judgment.”

Finley said his job is to pursue what's best for the City of Shawnee.

“And so is yours,” he added.

Shaw said that's what's she's doing, because that could easily lead to litigation.

Finley said the commission would leave that for others to decide.

Returning to the topic of previous comments Shaw had made to Erickson, Finley said all the commissioners filled out Erickson's recent evaluation except her.

“You forfeited your right to do that evaluation,” Finley said.

She responded, saying she was sick that day — and her comments weren't directed at his evaluation.

“This was about me requesting to be given certain information,” she said.

“Your comments were of a personal nature, job-related, and they were out of order,” Finley said.

With that, the board went on with the agenda.

During commissioner comments, Shaw stated she wasn't at war with the mayor, and that she did not wish to be.

Directing her comments to Finley, she said, “When it comes to Tribal issues, you just aren't the person who understands that, so from that perspective I would just like to educate you on two things: the Sac and Fox, it is their decision and right to make it, so let's allow that; and it's my understanding that their business committee did meet and did decide that at this point in time it would not meet their best interests. At the chief's request, they are going to revisit that issue and make a decision on it.”

She said she just asked that she be included in meetings.

“That's what I'm still asking for,” she said.

Regarding a stance on the proposed interchange, City Commissioners Dub Bushong, James Harrod and Darren Rutherford voiced support.

City Commissioners Ron Gillham Sr. and Ben Salter did not offer an opinion publicly during the meeting.

Watch for more articles this week from Monday's City Commission meeting in The Shawnee News-Star.