Unlike dozens of other cities vying to be the home of Amazon’s second headquarters, Pittsburgh is competing in near secrecy.
After city and Allegheny County leaders declined to disclose any details of the proposal sent to Amazon on Oct. 19, PublicSource submitted requests the next day to both the city and county for the proposal as well as emails among officials and specifics on the incentives offered by the city and state. PublicSource also submitted a request to Gov. Tom Wolf’s office since he had worked with both Pittsburgh and Philadelphia to craft their proposals to Amazon. That request, too, was rejected.
The city, county and state took five weeks before notifying PublicSource on Monday, Nov. 27, that the requests were denied. The city’s law department, which processes requests for information, said the requests were either for information that is not public or were too broad.
Allegheny County cited the same exemptions, adding that the records contained “trade secret[s] or confidential proprietary information.” Wolf’s office said it didn’t have copies of the bids from Pittsburgh or Philadelphia’s on file.
So far, the news website MuckRock, which specializes in sending open-records requests, has obtained proposals from about 30 cities, out of more than 100 requests it has submitted. In total, 238 cities have submitted bids.
PublicSource likewise sought to glean more information about locations the city and county proposed to Amazon. We attempted to secure the formal proposal along with the responses the city got when it called for property owners to submit their sites for consideration in the search for Amazon sites.
Further, PublicSource hoped to learn more about the process and resources that went into putting the Amazon bid together. PublicSource asked for a detailed list of all of the partners, paid or unpaid, who worked to prepare the bid to Amazon, and any documents that would detail the expenses paid to contractors and anything else spent to prepare the bid.
PublicSource asked the city and county for emails exchanged between Mayor Bill Peduto, his chief of staff Kevin Acklin, County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and Allegheny Conference CEO Stefani Pashman between Sept. 1, 2017 and Oct. 19, 2017.
At a press conference on Oct. 19, Peduto, Fitzgerald, Acklin and Pashman were presented as the leaders of the city’s effort to attract Amazon. The emails they exchanged while they were working on the proposal could shed light on what incentives the city was offering. Emails like these, especially when specific names and dates are provided, are typically public record but Celia Liss, the city’s Open Records officer, wrote that they are not in this case. She also wrote that a list of meetings the mayor attended related to Amazon does not exist, even though his schedule is published daily. Jerry Tyskiewicz, the county’s Open Records officer, also wrote that Fitzgerald’s emails are not public because they contain sensitive and “proprietary information.”
As the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette noted recently, these rejections are happening on purpose. While other cities are releasing their proposals to the public, Fitzgerald told the paper the secrecy keeps the city competitive. “It’s best not to show other cities what we’re doing,” he told the Post-Gazette.
Additionally, Peduto and Acklin said the city signed a non-disclosure agreement with Amazon, barring them from sharing details about the proposal. That agreement, though, has not prevented Boston or Toronto from disclosing details. And across the state, Philadelphia has named sites Amazon could occupy there. In fact, Philadelphia responded to a Right-to-Know request from PublicSource indicating it would send documents related to its proposal in the near future.
PublicSource plans to appeal the Pittsburgh rejections to the state Office of Open Records.
See PublicSource’s story on how Amazon could affect equity in Pittsburgh.