Pittsburgh officials have argued that their Amazon HQ2 proposal — one of 20 finalists for the coveted deal — should be kept private because it contains proprietary information and trade secrets. Pennsylvania’s Office of Open Records disagreed this week. It issued a written decision ordering officials to make the document public and release any emails related to it within 30 days.
“Although the city and Allegheny County maintain that the proposal has economic value, and disclosure of the proposal would allow other jurisdictions to appropriate that economic value, the proposal is not covered by the trade secrets exemption,” Kyle Applegate, appeals officer with the Office of Open Records, wrote in the decision, according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “The proposal is not related to any business or commerce being conducted by the city or county; instead, through the proposal, the city and county are hoping to attract Amazon to the region so that it may engage in commerce, and the region can reap the benefits of jobs and investment.”
The decision came in response to a WTAE-TV reporter’s appeal to secure a copy of the mysterious proposal. The Tribune-Review filed a similar appeal, according to the paper.
As of November, 238 cities had sent proposals to the e-commerce giant. Those documents followed months of wild publicity stunts, and, per the company’s request, they outlined incentives to “offset initial capital outlay and ongoing operational costs.” Newark, New Jersey — one of the final 20 — responded by offering the company $7 billion in tax incentives. Fresno, California, which did not make the final cut, infamously offered to funnel taxes generated by the company into a fund that Amazon itself would help to oversee. Detroit, which also failed to break the top 20, promised the company 30 years free of many standard taxes.
But there’s no national law ordering cities to make their bids public — so the corporate subsidies being promised have not been disclosed, in many cases. And they haven’t just been kept from the taxpaying public. In December, the Nashville Scene reported that members of the Metro Council — who would have to approve an incentive package for Amazon on behalf of the public — hadn’t even seen the city’s proposal (Nashville did go on to become a finalist).
“I would be very curious to see what we are giving away,” District 31 Councilmember Fabian Bedne told the paper at the time. “We never learn about these things until it’s too late.”
Muckrock, a nonprofit that facilitates investigative reporting through open-records efforts, has been tracking the bids that have been made public. As of January 18, only four municipalities of the winning 20 (Boston, Miami, Philadelphia and Montgomery County, Maryland) had released their documents to the organization — although some cities, like Washington D.C., had made their bids public elsewhere. Like Pittsburgh, the cities that had denied Muckrock cited dangers to their “competitive advantage.”
Of the municipalities that had gone public with Muckrock, redactions were, in some cases, enthusiastic. Montgomery County blacked out a collection of proposed incentives. Philadelphia released its bid but redacted about a third of it, according to the Tribune-Review.
Those non-disclosures and bars of black are troubling, as Next City has covered.
“Taxpayers should watch their wallets as the trophy deal of the decade attracts politicians to a hyper-sophisticated tax-break auction,” Good Jobs First Executive Director Greg LeRoy said in a statement when the HQ2 race was announced. “We fear that many states and localities will offer to grossly overspend to attract Amazon, even though the business basics — especially a metro area’s executive talent pool — will surely control the company’s decision.”
Rachel Dovey is an award-winning freelance writer and former USC Annenberg fellow living at the northern tip of California’s Bay Area. She writes about infrastructure, water and climate change and has been published by Bust, Wired, Paste, SF Weekly, the East Bay Express and the North Bay Bohemian.