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State Orders City Of Pittsburgh, Allegheny County To Release Amazon Proposal

Elaine Thompson
An Amazon employee and her dog walk into a building at the company's Seattle headquarters. Local officials wanted to keep secret their proposal to attract the online retailer.

Pennsylvania’s Office of Open Records ordered the City of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County on Wednesday to release the region’s bid for Amazon’s second headquarters, or HQ2, ruling that the document belongs in the public domain.

City and county officials initially denied media requests to see the package of incentives the region offered to Amazon, saying the proposal contained trade secrets and proprietary information.

Office of Open Records Executive Director Erik Arneson said the reasoning was unusual, but ultimately the decision was straightforward.

“I feel bad saying this, but we’re a pretty emotionless office. We have zero rooting interest in any particular outcome,” he said. “We just try to get it right according to the law and the facts of any given case.”

The state found that the city and county did not provide sufficient evidence to qualify for an exemption under state law, and found in favor of the Right To Know requests filed by WTAE-TV reporter Paul Van Osdol, said the station’s News Director Jim Parsons.

“The public has a right to know how their tax dollars are being offered up, if they are being offered up,” Parsons said. “And those answers are not being provided to the public.”

Hours ahead of the ruling's release on Wednesday, CEO Stefani Pashman, who spoke to reporters after a meeting at the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, said keeping the details of the proposal confidential is typical for how the conference approaches the machinations of a business deal.

“This happens every day,” she said.'

Last week, Pittsburgh was named a finalist in Amazon’s search for a second home. The company said it will select a location this year, a decision that is expected to bring $5 billion in investment to the selected municipality.

After the announcement, Amazon sent a non-disclosure agreement to be signed, said Pashman.

“They’ve basically said we’re going to speak with one person, single point of contact, and we’re going to make this thing be very tightly managed.”

Pashman said the stakeholders in PGHQ2, the team that compiled the region’s bid, are committed to ensuring that if Amazon does choose to invest in Pittsburgh, the investment will go back to the community.

“If our tax base grows at that magnitude, all these community challenges from workforce development to affordable housing to cleaning our air, cleaning our water, whatever it might be, we can only accelerate those activities,” she said. “We’re fighting for this because in the end it benefits the community at large.”

Under the Office of Open Records’ order, the city has 30 days to release the proposal and related communications. The county was compelled to release only the proposal. The decision is subject to appeal during that 30 day window. If they do appeal, the case will go to the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas. 

A statement issued on behalf of the city and county says the legal departments of both parties are reviewing the decision of the Office of Open Records in order to determine their next steps.

Margaret J. Krauss is WESA’s senior reporter. She covers development and transportation, and has produced award-winning podcasts on housing, work, and Pittsburgh’s lesser-known history. Before joining the newsroom full time, she covered the challenges facing Pennsylvania cities as a statewide reporter, and spent another life as an assistant editor for National Geographic Kids Magazine in Washington, D.C. She can be reached at mkrauss@wesa.fm.
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