Officials in Long Beach and Huntington Beach have refused to provide records related to their cities’ joint bid for Amazon’s second headquarters to a government transparency organization, but other California cities have provided the records.
Michael Morisy, cofounder of the Boston-based transparency organization MuckRock, said having access to cities’ proposals could reveal whether government representatives are offering tax incentives or other trade-offs in order to attract the company. He views the information as important to understanding the policy implications of bids for Amazon’s headquarters, as well as public participation in general.
The nonprofit describes its mission as helping journalists, researchers, activists and others obtain government records. One of the group’s current projects is called “America Bids on Amazon” and involves collecting records from municipalities that have submitted proposals in the much-ballyhooed competition for the Seattle-based online retailer’s second headquarters.
Amazon received nearly 240 bids for the project, expected to generate thousands of jobs. Canadian and Mexican cities have also joined U.S. municipalities in the competition.
Long Beach and Huntington Beach submitted a joint bid for Amazon’s headquarters in October, calling attention to their efforts with a promotional video featuring comic actor Kevin Pollak touting the cities’ competitive virtues, playing a role that was somewhat reminiscent of a mastermind-type character in a heist movie.
The two cities have since, however, declined to release details of their bid.
Other cities choose disclosure
Elsewhere in California, the cities of Chula Vista, Fresno, Irvine and Pomona have made details of their bids public, according to MuckRock. The Bay Area Council, a business group, has also published its pitch to bring Amazon to the San Francisco Bay region.
Irvine spokeman Craig Reem said city officials had the intention of publishing their bid online at the time the City Council decided to enter Amazon’s competition.
“It was never a discussion of not publishing it on the website,” Reem said.
Irvine’s proposal, for example, calls attention to Amazon’s existing presence in the city, and includes demographic information about Irvine and Orange County. Irvine’s proposal also includes information on state and local tax incentives, and extends the promise that Irvine Co., a real estate company and major landowner, would be able to help Amazon develop a desirable headquarters.
Pomona’s bid is the product of cooperation between Pomona officials, Los Angeles County government, Cal Poly Pomona and Fairplex, where the Los Angeles County Fair takes places each year. The city provided its pitch to MuckRock, which published the information online. The document broaches the possibility of a $1 a year lease for Fairplex land and declares Cal Poly Pomona administrators are open to a long-term lease.
The document also contains a pledge to ask state government to grant Amazon an exemption from the California Environmental Quality Act. The law mandates environmental studies that, for something on the order of a corporate headquarters, would almost certainly require a costly and time-consuming environmental impact report that could itself become the basis for a lawsuit filed by someone opposing a project.
Fresno’s bid contains another example of offers that city officials are making to woo Amazon. There, officials have offered to create a special fund that would give Amazon a say in how the company’s tax dollars are spent on local improvements for an entire century.
Officials in Fresno released their proposal to local media prior to MuckRock’s request, city spokesman Mark Standriff said.
Long Beach, Huntington Beach choose secrecy
Long Beach’s official response to MuckRock, however, cites a section of the California Public Records act that allows local governments to withhold records when the “public interest served by not disclosing the record clearly outweighs the public interest served by disclosure of the record.”
Long Beach Economic Development Director John Keisler said when City Hall is seeking bids from companies that want to do business with the city, they keep that information confidential in order to respect each bidders’ competitiveness. In this case, it’s Long Beach city government’s position that confidentiality is necessary as long as the bidding is in progress, although officials plan to release the bid after Amazon executives make up their mind.
In a Nov. 14 response letter to MuckRock, Long Beach assistant city manager Tom Modica wrote that Long Beach and Huntington Beach officials believe disclosing details of their bid may hinder their abilities to win the competition, so the potential economic benefits of attracting a major corporate presence to the two-city area overrides the benefits of public disclosure, at least for the time being.
Modica further wrote that if Amazon wants to make a deal with Long Beach, the specifics would be subject to public disclosure prior to an open City Council meeting.
Huntington Beach spokeswoman Julie Toledo provided a copy of Modica’s letter in response to a request for comment.
“The public will have a chance to to weigh in before the council takes action,” Keisler said.
But releasing information that may provoke public debates before Amazon has made a decision may prove an impediment if controversy develops before officials can respond, Keisler said.
“We also don’t want to have a public debate about something we can’t talk about during the competitive process to attract negative attention to the city,” he said.
Long Beach’s bid may be similar to what other cities have offered. Although officials have not provided the full document, Keisler said it includes information on the likes of local demographics, cultural amenities and available talent, as well as earlier offers that the city and state have previously made to businesses.
“It’s a package of a lot of stuff that’s publicly available,” he said. “The way that it’s presented, the way that it’s marketed and promoted is something that we don’t want every city in the country to look at.”
David Snyder, executive director of the California First Amendment Coalition, disagreed with the position taken by Long Beach and Huntington Beach officials. In his view, there’s a difference between a local government maintaining the secrecy of bidders’ responses an official request for proposals, and letting the public know whether City Hall is offering tax breaks or a streamlined approval process to a business.
“It’s an issue of intense public interest and I think the city is improperly withholding records,” he said.
Source: Oc Register