City of Long Beach Denies Freedom of Information Request Regarding Bid on New Amazon Headquarters

Above: part of the public collateral released by Long Beach and Huntington Beach as they compete to attract Amazon to our coast (or in the case of this picture, Laguna Beach).

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is a treasure trove of alleviation for journalists. Mention it formally in most matters and any public entity—in today’s example, the City of Long Beach—has to provide you the information you requested in a timely and respectful manner.

Of course, there are caveats.

If it’s a matter in court, you’ll get a no. If it’s a matter of public safety, you’ll get a no. Or, in the case of journalist Adanya Lustig of Muck Rock, you’ll receive a denial if “the City reasonably determine that the public interest in not disclosing the record clearly outweighs the public interest in disclosure.”

Her request? To examine what the City, in its partnership with Huntington Beach, is offering Amazon as the massive company announced it will be seeking a new home for its second headquarters campus—and the denial is important if one is keeping track of what other cities are offering to get Amazon to their city.

While cities like Boston, with its 218-page bid, and Toronto, with its 190-page pitch, have opened up their proposals to the public, Long Beach seeks to keep the public out of the proposal in the name of competition through the RFP process, one which Amazon will have to sift through 238 proposals from across the nation, Canada, and Mexico. This isn’t to say there is no good reason why so many want Amazon to come to them: the second headquarters campus is set to bring 50,000 jobs to wherever it lands; it’s an economic development powerhouse no matter where it lands.

However, the bidding process has come under scrutiny because the cities vying for Amazon’s attention look desperate in the eyes of many critics.

New Jersey is offering an exorbitant $7B in aid for their proposed headquarters.

Chicago, in one of the far more controversial incentives, will enact a personal income-tax diversion for Amazon: the workers must still pay taxes in taxes, but instead of the monies going to public projects, Amazon will pocket $1.3B in income taxes—the precise taxes paid by its own workers.

Chula Vista down south? They’ll hand over 85 acres of land for free and excuse any property taxes on the headquarters for 30 years. The loss of public monies in that transaction? $400M.

But perhaps the most egregious of bids is that of Fresno: it will funnel 85% of its of all public funds into a special account for Amazon, which will determine how those monies are spent through a board half made up on Amazon officers.

Yup, City Hall: Brought to You by Amazon.

“Rather than the money disappearing into a civic black hole, Amazon would have a say on where it will go,” Fresno Economic Development Director Larry Westerlund told the Los Angeles Times. “Not for the fire department on the fringe of town, but to enhance their own investment in Fresno.”

Heaven forbid we fund the fire department on the fringe of town…

So when it comes to the bid that Long Beach and Huntington Beach are offering, it would benefit the public to know what is being offered because if the bid is accepted, it will vastly affect not just Long Beach but the entirety of the Southland.

When I questioned the City on their responses—and whether it truly fell under Assistant City Manager Tom Modica’s description that public interest in not disclosing “clearly outweighs” the opposite—Kevin Lee, Interim Public Affairs officer for the city stated, “There’s not much more to say than what is in the letter. As noted in the letter, a big reason not to release the proposal is to preserve competitive advantages.”

That being said, we’re in murky waters in terms of public disclosure: most of the time, it is the City receiving bids—not sending them out. Maintaining a “competitive edge” is not, in the basic terms of FOIA, a basis for denial under the law. However, according to jurisdictions could cite various other things—trade secrets or confidential proprietary information or real estate transaction clauses—that could provide protection until the decision is made.

Lustig said most of the Amazon HQ2 bids haven’t been made public yet and that Muck Rock has filed 165 right-to-know requests. Of those, 30 bids have been opened up; about 25 others have been rejected; another 25 stated they did not file a proposal; and 80 other cities have not yet replied to their requests.

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Brian Addison has been a writer, editor, and photographer for more than a decade, covering everything from food and culture to transportation and housing. In 2015, he was named Journalist of the Year by the Los Angeles Press Club and has since garnered 16 nominations and two additional wins for Best Political Commentary for his work at KCET and Best Blog for Longbeachize, a section of the Long Beach Post. Brian currently serves as a columnist and editor for the Long Beach Post.