A county judge ruled that Pittsburgh’s Amazon HQ2 bid should be released. The city and county plan to appeal.

Amazon's campus in Seattle, Washington, spans the city's downtown and South Lake Union neighborhoods. The campus was photographed from the roof of Amazon's Port 99 building. (Photo by Jordan Stead, courtesy of Amazon)

Allegheny County Judge Terrence O’Brien ruled on Wednesday that the Pittsburgh region’s bid for Amazon’s second headquarters should be released without redactions, but it’s unlikely the public will see the bid anytime soon.

O’Brien said that since Pittsburgh and the county were intricately involved in crafting the bid, it did not count as confidential and should, therefore, be released. His ruling follows a months-long appeal by the city and county against WTAE and several other news organizations, including PublicSource. The Pennsylvania Office of Open Records [OOR] ruled in February that the bid should be released.

City and county officials said repeatedly that they sought to keep the bid secret because they were competing with 19 other cities for the online retail giant’s Eastern headquarters, dubbed HQ2. Releasing the bid would allow other cities to see what incentives Pittsburgh offered and make the corporation more enticing offers, they argued.

The city and county have 30 days to release the bid unless they appeal O’Brien’s ruling in Commonwealth Court, which county spokeswoman Amie Downs said the county plans to do.

“Our respective Law Departments will be reviewing the order of court, but we plan to appeal this decision,” she wrote in a statement.

If Amazon happens to announce the winner of its HQ2 competition while the city and county’s appeal is underway, Downs said, the county will release the bid, as County Executive Rich Fitzgerald previously promised.

“The County Executive and Mayor have indicated from the very beginning that when a final decision is made that they will release the county and city’s portions of that proposal – win or lose. Nothing has changed,” she wrote in an email.

Lawyers for the city and county argued that because a private entity, PGHQ2, a subsidiary of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, owned the bid, the document counted as a trade secret and was allowed to be withheld from the public. O’Brien wrote in his ruling that he didn’t find the argument convincing.

“PGHQ2 has no employees… PGHQ2 sells nothing, not all information in the proposal to Amazon is confidential...and the bid to Amazon is a bilateral state and local proposal,” O’Brien wrote, noting that the chiefs of staff for both Fitzgerald and Mayor Bill Peduto — both of whom are public employees — helped craft the bid.

Philip Cynar, a spokesman for the Allegheny Conference, declined to comment on the ruling, saying the appeal is the city’s and county’s business.

O’Brien also pushed back on another argument the city and county made, that the OOR’s ruling should be thrown out because its executive director, Erik Arneson, made comments to the media about whether the bid should be made public before his office made a formal determination. O’Brien agreed that Arneson shouldn’t have made the comments but that scrapping the OOR’s ruling and making it start over wouldn’t solve anything.

He also rejected claims from the city and county that they couldn’t release the bid before the decision because it could compromise Pittsburgh’s chances at landing Amazon’s second headquarters, which would be a boon to the region. The judge said such an argument was not relevant.

“This case is not about whether Amazon locating its second headquarters in this region would provide an economic boost. Nor is it relevant, as argued by the agencies, that public disclosure of the records at issue would ‘sabotage [this region’s] opportunity to compete with’ other regions of the United States for the headquarters,” he wrote.

At this point, little is known about the region’s HQ2 bid, though it’s rumored that the state offered $1 billion in incentives to the company to locate in either Pittsburgh or Philadelphia. Several of Pennsylvania's neighbors have offered steeper incentives, with Maryland offering $8.5 billion and New Jersey offering $7 billion. Several sites in the city have reportedly been considered  for Amazon’s location were it to choose Pittsburgh, including the Hazelwood Green site and the site of the former Civic Arena in Uptown.

Despite the competition, other finalist cities for HQ2 have released their bids either in full or with redactions, including New Jersey, Boston and Philadelphia.

Amazon is expected to announce where it will locate its second headquarters sometime this year.

J. Dale Shoemaker is PublicSource's government and data reporter. You can reach him at 412-515-0060 or by email at dale@publicsource.org. You can follow him on Twitter at @JDale_Shoemaker. He can be reached securely via PGP: bit.ly/2ig07qL

  • Mary Lewin

    How much taxpayer money is being spent in legal fees to avoid telling us what is clearly public information as ruled on by state open records office and now county judge? We the taxpayers have the right to know how our badly needed tax dollars are going toward giving tax breaks to one of the richest corporations in the world. Amazon shouldn’t have this kind of power and our public officials should not be complicit in Amazon’s demand for millions in corporate welfare. Thank you to Public Source for covering this story.