Pennsylvania’s Office of Open Records sided with journalists this week, ruling that Pittsburgh’s Amazon HQ2 bid is a public record and should be released within 30 days.
The decision, in response to an appeal by Pittsburgh’s WTAE-TV, came after news organizations including GeekWire filed right-to-know requests to see Pittsburgh’s proposal for the $5 billion second headquarters that Amazon promises to bring to the city that wins its high-profile contest.
The city and county have declined to release the bid publicly, saying that non-disclosure agreements with landowners, trade secrets, and proprietary information exempted the bid from public right-to-know laws.
In its decision this week, the Office of Open Records disagreed.
“The proposal is not related to any business or commerce being conducted by the City or the 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 ruling says. “Neither the City nor County has pointed to any support for the proposition that a government agency may have a trade secret when not engaging in business or commerce.”
Pittsburgh officials indicated Thursday that they plan to appeal the decision in court.
“While we respect the decision of the Office of Open Records, we believe it to be in the best interests of Pittsburgh to file a legal appeal of its decision,” the team behind Pittsburgh’s HQ2 bid told local news site The Incline in a statement. “The City of Pittsburgh’s and Allegheny County’s legal teams are currently reviewing those options.”
Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto addressed the issue on Twitter.
We are under Non Disclose Agreements with the property owners & developers – it isn’t public land. Without the NDAs we wouldn’t have been able to have a proposal. Every single economic development begins with confidentiality- then the public process, same w Amazon. https://t.co/4YKNGdmfW6
— bill peduto (@billpeduto) January 26, 2018
Pittsburgh’s refusal to release its bid may show a keen understanding of the company it so badly wants to attract. Amazon is notoriously secretive, a trait that has fomented skepticism, even resentment in its hometown, Seattle.
Open records advocates and journalists in Pittsburgh are starting to empathize, saying citizens have the right to know how their tax dollars are being used in negotiations for one of the biggest economic development deals in history.
Last week, Amazon announced 20 cities from the original 238 applicants would move to the next phase of the HQ2 contest. Each is vying for 50,000 high-paying jobs and the multi-billion dollar investment Amazon says HQ2 will deliver. Some of those cities have made their proposals public, either voluntarily or in response to public records requests. Amazon has reportedly asked representatives of the cities in the running to sign non-disclosure agreements related to the next phase of the process, with a decision expected in 2018.
The Office of Open Records gave Pittsburgh and Allegheny County 30 days to release the bid or file an appeal. The appeals process could take weeks or months.
Read the full ruling below.