Is Pittsburgh breaking Right-to-Know Law by shielding its Amazon HQ2 bid?

Pennsylvania’s open records gatekeepers say it’s an ‘unusual situation.’

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Jasmine Goldband / The Incline
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Citing a desire not to tip their hand or dull their competitive edge, Pittsburgh officials have declined to divulge much of anything about their bid to host Amazon’s newest headquarters.

There have been glimpses. There have been rumors. But most of what has emerged from City Hall has been carefully managed and meticulously scripted.

That trend continued this week, with Pittsburgh denying no less than three right-to-know requests seeking to pull back the curtain and compel the release of relevant documentation. Officials argued that the release of such information could harm Pittsburgh’s chances as it competes against hundreds of cities and states across North America, all with an identical interest in snagging Amazon’s “HQ2” golden ticket — up to 50,000 new jobs and billions in investments to the winner.

But while some of those cities and states have revealed aspects or the whole of their pitches — this includes the conversion of an old horse racing track in Boston, huge development sites in Toronto and tax incentives galore — Pittsburgh has been decidedly more guarded with its own. Some released details unprompted and soon after the bids were submitted, while others have had to release information under public record laws, which differ from state to state.

In Pittsburgh, officials shipped their two-inch thick pitch to Amazon in October after spending between $300,000 and $400,000 on its assembly. They’ve said little or nothing about it in the weeks since.

Critics say the result is a strange intersection of private sector interests, public sector ambitions and, far down the totem pole, the public’s right to know.

But while the city is completely within its rights to tiptoe or play it safe in what amounts to a continent-wide game of poker, the rules change slightly when dealing with open records requests like those denied earlier this week.