Of Amazon & Potemkin villages

Of Amazon & Potemkin villages

It would be a hilarious comment if it weren’t so anathema to sound public policy.

The CEO of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development tells the Post-Gazette that Amazon has told Pittsburgh officials that their refusal to publicly release any details about their finalist bid for the retailing giant’s second headquarters outside Seattle has been a point in their favor.

“They’ve said to us … ‘We’ve really enjoyed working with Pittsburgh because you’ve actually done this under the radar and had an authentic conversation,’” said Stefani Pashman.

One can only bet Amazon does.

Non-disclosure now allows it to cut a deal with public officials — and not so public officials serving as something of a shadow government in this matter — that more easily can be force-fed down taxpayers’ throats with pre-determined “public” votes following show “debates.”

Treating taxpayers as rubes certainly is not sound public policy.

Both The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Patriot-News of Harrisburg have penned sharp – that is, well-written and biting – editorials about the unacceptable secrecy cloaking what the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh, Allegheny County and Philadelphia have offered in incentives to Amazon to locate their second headquarters in their respective jurisdictions.

The Inky not only chides state officials for using dubious rationales for keeping the pledging of public dollars hush-hush, it slams them for using more public dollars to fight state Office of Open Records rulings that such information of course is public.

No one knows much of what Pittsburgh, Allegheny County and Philly have offered. But there have been reports that the commonwealth has pledged $1 billion in tax incentives. Details? Go away, public.

Just about every public official involved in this charade argues that this is how the people’s business must be done, that the public will get to see terms of the deal once, and if, the deal gets done.

Opined The Inquirer: “That’s like a car salesman telling you he’ll let you test drive your new ride after you sign the contract to buy it.”


And as The Patriot-News put it: “The taxpayers deserve to know how their money is being spent. The administration (of Gov. Tom Wolf) is insulting them by spending their money to keep them from finding out.

“Drop the lawsuit and open the books, Governor. Pennsylvanians can decide for themselves if this is a Prime deal or not,” the Harrisburg paper puts it.

And as KDKA’s Mike Pintek has repeatedly said, paraphrasing it: These deals must be really outrageous or these public officials wouldn’t be going to such lengths to hide the details.

Boom, boom.

Public money is being pledged. Public officials have pledged it. The public has every right to know. Now.

Allegheny County Chief Executive Rich Fitzgerald, meeting with Tribune-Review editors this week, says Amazon officials had lots of questions about what Greater Pittsburgh has to offer.

But, as the Trib story put it, “very few (questions) about the tax breaks the e-commerce giant would receive by building its second headquarters here.”

So, if it’s not a very big deal to Amazon, why the continued opaqueness from practitioners of perverted public policy? Refer to the opening item in today’s At Large, of course.

Fitzgerald also reiterated to the Trib that any incentive would need approval from Allegheny County Council, and public hearings would be held.

As if a repeat of the rubber-stamping and lip service we saw in The Great Stadiums Debate of two decades ago is acceptable?

“Trust us,” our public officials appear to be saying. But past being prologue, no base line of trust exists. Sound public policy demands transparency. When the people’s agents cloak the public from its own business, the concept of trust has been defiled.

“NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt” broadcasts from Pittsburgh on Thursday evening. It’s reportedly looking at the Erstwhile Steel City’s “tech transformation,” the Post-Gazette reports.

As Holt himself says, “we’re looking at the incredible transformation to a new economy and embracing Uber and tech-oriented companies, and what can be learned from other communities looking to make a similar tech transition.”

But what will viewers actually see? Will they see the rah-rah-sis-boom-bah Pittsburgh, as staged by chamber of commerce-types? Or will they see a balanced view of Pittsburgh’s transformation – one including a look at its failing public school system and its long-neglected water and sewer infrastructure?

To truly prosper, to progress in reality, Pittsburgh can ill-afford to promote a Potemkin village.  “Honesty is but an art to seem so,” once wrote John Marston, the English dramatist and satirist of the early Jacobean era. But employing smoke and mirrors has no place in sound public policy.

Colin McNickle is a senior fellow and media specialist at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).