Dakota County officials lobbed criticism Tuesday at Greater MSP, accusing the regional development nonprofit of a lack of transparency after refusing to publicly release the Twin Cities Amazon headquarters bid, which it worked on with state officials.
Greater MSP officials presented an annual update at the meeting, but talk soon turned to the still secret Amazon proposal, which never made it past the first round.
"I'm uncomfortable with the refusal to disclose the bid materials," said Commissioner Joe Atkins. "We're a public entity, we're investing public dollars in this enterprise. Technically, maybe, there's not a requirement that those bid materials be released publicly — it just makes me very uncomfortable not to."
Even details of the Vikings' Super Bowl proposal eventually were released, Atkins said.
"It's absurd that public entities are giving you information and that the bid process is over … it doesn't even make sense," said Commissioner Mary Liz Holberg.
Peter Frosch, Greater MSP's chief of staff, confirmed that the group had signed a nondisclosure agreement with Amazon. He said that the demands of client confidentiality make it sometimes hard to be transparent.
"We're uncomfortable, too. Transparency was one of the values that you saw on our slides," Frosch said.
A judge recently confirmed that Greater MSP isn't obligated to share the proposal. Together with the state Department of Employment and Economic Opportunity (DEED), Greater MSP successfully beat back a suit filed last summer by Public Record Media (PRM), a nonprofit watchdog group that argued the bid should be made public because the state had a role in creating it.
Ramsey County District Judge Leonardo Castro dismissed the case earlier this month, ruling that Greater MSP is a private organization and therefore doesn't have to turn over its documents. DEED and Greater MSP didn't have a formal contract to collaborate on the proposal, the judge ruled, and DEED officials never had access to the entire proposal.
The Minnesota Government Data Practices Act, Castro wrote, "does not cover data that a government entity merely accessed or viewed," but only data that a government agency "collected, created, received, maintained or disseminated."
Amazon announced in September 2017 that it was taking bids for its second corporate headquarters, which came with projections of 50,000 new jobs. Metro areas across North America rushed to craft proposals to host the multibillion dollar retailer, including the Twin Cities. Amazon in the end chose the New York and Washington, D.C., areas for its new headquarters.
Greater MSP was pleased with the judge's order and "ready to put the lawsuit behind them, frankly," said Dan Supalla, attorney for Greater MSP. He said that giving up the proposal's details could put Greater MSP at a competitive disadvantage in preparing future bids for corporations to locate in the Twin Cities.
Matt Ehling, PRM's executive director, said the group was surprised by the ruling. He said it was "very clear" that DEED had access to a file-sharing system and had seen a draft of the proposal.
The larger issue that went unaddressed, he said, was whether the public should have access to economic development proposals created in the state's name.
"It would certainly be interesting to see what was in the Amazon bid, but it's the precedential nature of what happens next that's always concerned us," Ehling said. "If you're able to hide this kind of document … what's next?"
PRM is still weighing whether to appeal the judge's order — it has 40 days left to decide — or whether to persuade legislators to address it, Ehling said.
Greater MSP is a regional economic development partnership started in 2011. Dakota County is one of about 180 investors in the group.