January 15, 2003

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Free Joe Lynn!

IMAGINE: AT a time when public cynicism about government is at an alarmingly high level, and when the Brown administration has done everything possible to keep the public in the dark about what's really happening at City Hall, one city employee actually does his job, and releases public information about Pacific Gas and Electric Co.'s role in the fall election to the public – and he gets reprimanded for it.

The story of what happened to Joe Lynn, a staffer at the Ethics Commission, is alarming, not just because of the specifics but also because of the message it sends to every city worker in San Francisco.

As Terry Francke, general counsel for the California First Amendment Coalition, told us: "It's intended to chill public employees who would alert the public to newsworthy matters of public interest that are on the public record."

As far as we can tell, Lynn did nothing wrong. When a staffer from Common Cause called him shortly after the election to ask if there were any new campaign filings, Lynn noted that one had come in that morning, and he passed along the information – about PG&E's failure to disclose $800,000 in spending. But his supervisor, Virginia Vida, reprimanded him for "selectively" releasing the PG&E filing.

Instead of a reprimand, Lynn ought to get a commendation for helping the public find out how PG&E tried to buy an election, prolonging the biggest scandal in San Francisco history, and then tried to cover up its role in the process. Sup. Tom Ammiano has called for an inquiry into what happened, and that's a good start. But the Ethics Commission ought to reverse the reprimand – and if it won't, the Board of Supervisors should demand that it be removed. And the board should set a new policy stating that no city employee should ever receive any form of discipline for releasing public records to the public.