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Allegheny

Pittsburgh's Amazon HQ2 proposal should be made public, state rules

| Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2018, 2:45 p.m.
Mayor Bill Peduto speaks during a press conference following Pittsburgh's application to Amazon as a destination for their HQ2, at the City County Building.
Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
Mayor Bill Peduto speaks during a press conference following Pittsburgh's application to Amazon as a destination for their HQ2, at the City County Building.

Pittsburgh's push to keep its bid for Amazon's second headquarters a secret took a serious blow Wednesday.

Pennsylvania's Office of Open Records ordered Pittsburgh and Allegheny County officials to publicly release the bid and emails related to it within 30 days.

Local officials argued that the proposal should not be made public because it contains proprietary information and trade secrets.

The Office of Open Records disagreed in a written decision issued Wednesday to WTAE-TV reporter Paul Van Osdol, who filed an appeal with the state agency to obtain a copy of the proposal. The Tribune-Review filed a similar appeal.

"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," wrote Kyle Applegate, appeals officer with the Office of Open Records.

"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," Applegate added. "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 in commerce."

Separately, the Office of Open Records ruled that Amazon-related emails between Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, his former Chief of Staff Kevin Acklin and anyone with the email domains @AlleghenyCounty.us, @pa.gov, @maya.com or @amazon.com should also be made public.

The city and count could appeal the office's decision in the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas. PGHQ2, the team working on the Amazon bid, released a statement Wednesday saying the city and county law departments are reviewing the Office of Open Records decision to decide what to do next.

"When next steps have been determined, we will announce that. Until that time, we will not have any further public statement on this matter," the statement said.

Officials previously said they would fight to keep the proposal secret.

Pittsburgh is one of 20 cities vying for the second headquarters. The project is expected to bring up to 50,000 jobs and $5 billion in investment to the city Amazon chooses.

Bids and details from several other cities have been made public, either voluntarily or though open records laws. Philadelphia, another finalist, released its bid but redacted about a third of it. New Jersey officials have said the state proposed $7 billion in tax breaks to Amazon if the company picks Newark, also a finalist.

Detroit's bid gave Amazon 30 years free of many taxes and promised $120 million to help train the tech talent Amazon is looking for. Detroit did not make the final cut.

Greg LeRoy, head of Good Jobs First, a Washington-based group that tracks public subsidies to corporations, said city and county officials should make the bid public. LeRoy applauded the Office of Open Records decision and congratulated the journalists fighting for access.

"A huge amount of money is being put on the table out of public sight," LeRoy said. "The decisions being made here, the offers being made, will affect everyone in your region for many, many years."

LeRoy said that Amazon likely didn't pick Pittsburgh because of its tax breaks or incentives but rather for the potential talent the city offers. That means more to Amazon's bottom line than tax breaks, he said.

"They don't have much to gain," LeRoy said of Amazon and tax breaks. "Taxpayers in Pittsburgh have a lot to lose."

This story has been updated to reflect that Allegheny County claims no emails related to the Amazon bid exist.

Aaron Aupperlee and Tom Fontaine are Tribune-Review staff writers.

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