It's the end of the Oakland City Council rules committee meeting, and there's just one final order of business: open forum. That's the part of a public meeting where anybody can speak about anything. Councilman Larry Reid notes for the record that there's only one speaker. It's someone he and everyone else in City Hall is all too familiar with a guy who, by his own count, spends about thirty hours per week attending public meetings. Reid calls Sanjiv Handa to step up for his allotted three minutes. "Unless you want to relinquish it," Reid says hopefully.
No dice. Sanjiv isn't giving up one second of soapbox time. During this ninety-minute meeting, he already has used public-comment periods to talk on the mic three or four times; you lose count after a while. He gets up to speak on almost every item, no matter how insignificant. This morning, Handa has lectured the committee on his favorite topic, the state's open-meeting law known as the Brown Act; he's vowed to put a measure on the 2008 ballot requiring the council to allow public speakers at least three minutes on every single item (in some cases they get only two); and he's accused politicians of being willing to "lie, cheat, and steal" to win approval for their own pet measures.
The heavyset, olive-skinned fifty-year-old, who is balding in the manner of Friar Tuck, explains to Reid that he has important information for the viewing audience council meetings are broadcast on KTOP, Oakland's cable-access channel. To the surprise of many in the room, Handa really did have some juicy news.
"Yesterday," he announces, "the Federal Bureau of Investigation swept into the Frank Ogawa Plaza area named after a council member who himself was on the take for many years and arrested a tailor by the name of Maurice, who many of you are familiar with. He was arraigned this morning in federal court on charges of extortion, among other things. There are some links to some of the city programs, such as some auctions and so forth. So it will be interesting to see that once this winds its way through the courts, what other information comes out, what linkages there are to City Hall and city departments as a result of that."
While the crookedness of the late Ogawa is disputable, Handa, the sole proprietor of what he calls the East Bay News Service, is right on target about Maurice the tailor. Later that day and the next morning, several "real" news outlets Bay City News, the Express, KNTV, the Oakland Tribune, and the San Francisco Chronicle would report that the FBI had arrested clothier Maurice Himy for allegedly shaking down an Oakland businessman who wanted a city auctioneering contract. Sanjiv didn't have all the details, but he was there first and, at least within the news biz, that's what matters most.
Of course, there's the question of whether Handa even qualifies as a journalist in order to claim the scoop. On the one hand, he does produce e-mail newsletters devoted to Oakland city government that go by various names, depending on their frequency, with titles such as The Six-Minute Report and The Oakland Bulletin. On the other, what reporter announces his scoop at the podium during a committee meeting?
For nearly fifteen years, ever since Handa started covering, and badgering, local government and civil servants, people have wondered exactly how to categorize him. Is he a journalist? A crank with a laptop? A bit of both? Doesn't he have anything better to do?
Interestingly enough, the man says he's made a living, albeit a meager one, off his solo operation ever since the early '90s before terms like "blogger," "citizen journalist," or even "Internet" entered the American lexicon. If, as some pundits suggest, one-man newsgathering operations are the wave of the future, what does the experience of this longtime local practitioner say about the future of journalism?
As he strolls through City Hall, Handa pleasantly greets an endless array of faces by name. He knows deputy city attorneys. Receptionists. Security guards. In fact, he says, a chance encounter with a guard tipped him off that something was going down with Maurice Himy. The guard, Sanjiv says, asked if he'd seen the tailor recently because some guys in suits had come looking for him. Afterward, Handa poked around and confirmed that Himy was the subject of an FBI probe.
Sanjiv heads to the records section of the city clerk's office to show a visitor where to find certain documents. Approaching a shelf full of materials, he looks for items related to the much-maligned deal to bring the Raiders back to Oakland. He scans the middle shelf, which contains five binders. "There are supposed to be six binders here," he tells a clerk standing nearby.
If Sanjiv Handa illustrates anything about journalism, it's that its predicted future may not be all that different from its past. In this age of media consolidation, it's easy to glorify the lone pamphleteer we call them political bloggers these days and yet, historically, the quasijournalists who went after their local officials almost always had personal axes to grind. Like Sanjiv, they also acted as advocates on the issues they set out to cover. That's a big no-no in mainstream journalism. Media companies hire beat reporters who are willing to bury their personal agendas and idiosyncrasies in the name of objectivity.
The other difference, of course, has to do with longevity. Over the past fifteen years, the Oakland Tribune has run through seven City Hall reporters. The East Bay News Service has had only one: its founder.
Handa has covered Oakland for so long that he knows the city better than many of its employees and the reporters who cover it. City Hall reporters often rely on him for tips and background information. After all, Sanjiv rarely misses a meeting, even the mind-numbing ones mainstream reporters dread. He's been at just about every ethics commission, city council, and planning commission meeting of the past decade. If it happens at City Hall, he's there and speaking at every opportunity.
While many find this behavior incredibly irritating, some public servants can't help but admire the man's dedication to city arcana. Ralph Kanz, a member of Oakland's public ethics commission, marvels at Handa's ability to remember obscure legislative details from a dozen years ago. "Sanjiv has the institutional memory of Oakland that no one else seems to want to have," he says.
Handa's obsessive nature notwithstanding, there's something else truly strange about him. Although practically everyone at City Hall knows him by his first name, no one seems to know anything about him. For all his demands for open government, the man who seems to spend his entire waking life poking away at city officials is himself a cipher, a mystery. Even his neighbor Chris Peeples, an AC Transit board member who calls Sanjiv a friend, says, "I have no idea whether he has a personal life."
By his own calculation, Handa works eighty to ninety hours a week, mostly on his newsletters, which he claims have about four thousand subscribers. He also has a late-night show, Midnights with Sanjiv, on West Oakland-based cable channel KBLC, and recently started contributing stories (good ones, actually) to the Oakland Post. Asked to name some hobbies, he merely says he likes to read but can't tell you the last book he read. "There are a lot of things that I'd like to do," he explains, "but it's just one of those things where sometimes you have some obligations thrust upon you and it's something that I feel that I want to do."
Handa wouldn't let this reporter see his Piedmont Avenue-area bachelor pad, first citing construction work planned by his landlord, then claiming irrationally that he didn't want people showing up at his door after reading this story. Peeples, who has seen the apartment, says it's filled with piles of papers stacked floor to ceiling. That's one thing easily discernable about Sanjiv: He's a total pack rat. His aging Toyota Camry, often parked in the garage behind City Hall, has been derided by one regular as "a firetrap on wheels." On a recent weekday, every square inch save the driver's seat was jammed with boxes and papers and copies of the Post, which he says he delivers around town. There appeared to be so much junk in the trunk that the right side of the car actually sagged, making it look lopsided.
The lone pamphleteer toils in relative obscurity. Apart from city employees and reporters, Handa is known primarily to Oakland political junkies who either have read his newsletters or simply endure his regular lectures at public meetings.
Although technologically literate, Handa has never consistently managed to maintain a Web site. He says he would probably turn down an offer from, say, the Oakland Tribune to cover City Hall because it wouldn't allow him the "flexibility" to do what he wants.
As far as journalism goes, Handa is self-taught, and although he's freelanced a few stories for the San Francisco Business Journal, he's never had a regular editor. Truth be told, he could use an editor in more ways than one: It's nearly impossible to have a brief conversation with the man. And, of course, he refuses to be selective at public meetings, speaking on almost every agenda item, and harping on procedural faux pas. "The reality is, most people ignore him," says City Council President Ignacio De La Fuente, who openly loathes Handa.
Yet Handa does dredge up juicy news on occasion. And although bureaucrats accuse him of filing public-records requests to harass them the city attorney's open government coordinator maintains a separate box for Sanjiv's requests and responses he often is asking for documents any reporter would want to see, such as council members' appointment calendars and salary information for top city officials. Handa, who has published a list of managers' salaries for a decade, played a key role in the Contra Costa Times' lawsuit two years ago to get a judge to force the City of Oakland to release salary figures. "Sanjiv is kind of nutty," says San Francisco Chronicle columnist Chip Johnson, "but the thing about Sanjiv is that he's often right."
Handa says he arrived in the United States from Chandigarh, India, at age nine with his parents and younger brother, settling first in Oakland. His father came here to get his master's degree in engineering. Since Sanjiv had started school early in India, he was two years younger than his fifth-grade classmates. The family then moved to Hayward, where he attended Tennyson High School and acquired his first taste for politics.
As Handa tells the story, he wanted to graduate in three years because kids in India graduate at age sixteen. To do so, he took summer classes and extra units. Then the school board changed the rules so only athletes and musicians could take extra units. Handa figured if they could make an exception for them, they could make an exception for him. He went to the superintendent, he says, but the administrator basically patted him on the head and sent him on his way.
Handa says he responded by forming a political action committee to back a slate of four school board candidates who would let students besides musicians and jocks take extra credits. As it happened, he says, the labor unions got behind those candidates. Three won, and he got to graduate early.
In 1972, at age sixteen, Sanjiv was poised to enter Cal as a freshman. He told his parents he wanted to be a lawyer. But back then the family was still considering returning to India, he says, and in India it was much more prestigious to have a business degree so he majored in business administration instead.
His foray into citizen journalism had its roots during his years at Cal. Sanjiv didn't much care for the school paper, the Daily Californian, so he began publishing his own, the California Spirit, devoted to covering women's sports, which he felt were being ignored.
After graduating, Handa spent many years working as a small-business consultant. In 1990, he produced a study for the City of Oakland showing that while small businesses were creating jobs, big businesses were cutting them. Two years later, though, he ditched his consulting business to write a two-page weekly newsletter about goings-on in the troubled Emeryville apartment building where he was living, as well as in Emeryville city government. Handa dubbed it The Five-Minute Report because he figured it took five minutes to read, and declared it "the world's first faxed newsweekly."
Among those who shelled out the $199 (now $299) annual subscription fee was Kaiser Permanente, which was poised to move its medical center from Oakland to Emeryville. "Handa's [publication] provides us with information on what is going on in a city that isn't well covered," then-public affairs director Ron Treleven told the Oakland Tribune. "What's more, [Handa] is a good writer and a fair reporter."
The Kaiser debate lured Handa into covering Oakland full time. He launched a series of newsletters: the Oakland Shadow, the Oakland Bulletin, and the Six-Minute Report (one minute more than Emeryville because Oakland is bigger). His slogan was "Your right to know. We make it happen every day." This, he felt, captured his reasons for devoting his life to covering the ins-and-outs of city government.
Handa has dedicated his newsletters to covering city government from an insider's perspective. For instance, the October 28, 2005 Oakland Bulletin, distributed as a two-page Adobe Acrobat file, detailed the rage of City Administrator Deborah Edgerly at Auditor Roland Smith over his credit-card audit of city officials; reported that the city attorney was looking into the appointments of two port commissioners after the East Bay News Service had questioned the legality of their appointments; and included "Keeping Your Directory Current Every Day," his standard feature on City Hall comings and goings, complete with officials' fax and phone numbers.
At first, Handa says, he'd hoped to become a kind of wire-service reporter for bigger news outlets that didn't want to send their own reporters to all the various city meetings. When that didn't work out, he began acting as a source for other reporters. He'd give them historical background, and would even tip them off to stories which is pretty rare in the competitive news business. Earlier this month, prior to his public announcement, he tipped the Express to the arrest of Jerry Brown's ex-tailor. Handa figures he might as well alert bigger media outlets, since the public will have a better chance of learning about something from them than from him.
"My whole purpose is to get information out there accurately and quickly," he says. "And if I can do that by sharing with other reporters, I'm more than happy to do it. I'm not in it for the credit, or anything like that. Most of the time I'm not even mentioned as a source, let alone by name. But that's no big deal. That's not the point the point is the public ought to know what's being done in their name, and the lengths to which officials sometimes go to hide that stuff."
Handa brags that he was the first to report in 1995 that a deal had been struck to bring the Raiders back to Oakland and that KPIX quoted him as a City Hall "watchdog" in its TV newscast. Through the years, he's had other scoops, mostly amusing tidbits exposing government waste or hypocrisy. For example, he discovered in 1997 that the city council hadn't paid its phone bill for more than three years and owed Pacific Bell $75,000 plus interest. Then there was the time in 1999 when he caught former Mayor Elihu Harris' driver using an expired press pass to avoid paying for street parking, and documented Councilwoman Jane Brunner parking in a red zone for seven hours. More recently, he tipped reporters to the hypocrisy of Mayor Jerry Brown, who had starred in ads imploring residents to "buy your car in Oakland" but was leasing a Cadillac from a Vallejo dealer.
So it's clear how he might get on some people's nerves. Thing is, city officials say Handa grates on them not because of what he writes but because, well, he's just a plain old pain in the ass.
It's the first council meeting after the summer recess, and Handa is sitting at the press table, filling out speaker cards. He has done thirteen and still has another four to go when his name is called. "For the record, Sanjiv Handa, East Bay News Service."
Handa welcomes everyone back, then informs city leaders that he noticed many of their reserved parking spaces in front of City Hall going unused during the summer hiatus except for Desley Brooks' spot and that he dutifully photographed the empty spaces. He then goes on to attack two high-level appointed officials, whom he describes as "poster childs [sic] for the worst of what the public sector has to offer."
The bell rings, indicating his time is up. One down, a dozen more tirades to go.
The fact that Handa insists on scolding public officials makes him hard to classify as a regular journalist. Diana Williams, who covered City Hall for the Oakland Tribune in the mid-'90s, says she didn't consider him a colleague. "I considered him a third party of some sort that I couldn't quite put a label on," she says, adding, "The thing that confused me was that he essentially inserted himself into the story by testifying on it."
Handa claims he argues only procedural points involving the public's right to know. But speaking at a recent meeting of the Port Commission, the panel that oversees maritime and airport operations, he noted that Jerry Brown, who is running for state attorney general, may well become the first attorney general indicted before he takes office, because of all the unethical things he did as mayor. Predicting the indictment of Oakland's top elected official doesn't sound like a point about process. Yet that's classic Sanjiv.
It's ironic, says John Betterton, the Port Commission secretary, that for all Handa's talk of keeping the public involved, he arguably interferes with its right to participate. Betterton, a former Brown aide, points out the public participation notice at the end of all the commission's agendas that invites people to speak. He credits Handa for alerting him to the fact that the port's agendas had lacked the notice, but blames him for how the port has chosen to phrase it. The notice states that citizens may speak on any agenda item, but must complete a speaker's card before the meeting begins.
Sure, he'd accept a speaker card from the average person who showed up late, Betterton says. In fact, the "before" disclaimer in the notice is meant especially for Handa, who usually arrives late and then hands in a steady stream of cards while Betterton is trying to keep track of things.
Mr. Open Government's antics likely interfere with public participation, the secretary says, because someone who can't get to the meeting in time might read that disclaimer online and not bother to show up. And although Handa speaks on just about every item, Betterton says he rarely focuses on the business at hand: "He wanders far afield, and attacks various individuals."
Betterton isn't the only one bothered by this. "I think someone like Sanjiv can serve an important function," says Richard Cowan, chief of staff to Councilwoman Jean Quan the past four years. "What concerns me and bothers me is that over the years, he's felt the need to increase the ad hominem attacks. That takes away from the legitimate function he could perform."
Handa went after Cowan's boss for her allegedly poor food etiquette in the June 2006 issue of The Oakland Digest, a printed tabloid Sanjiv puts out on occasion (and in which he sometimes quotes himself in the third person). He noted that council members are served fancy meals in the closed-session meetings before the regular council meetings, and that Quan had prepared herself a second helping of baked chicken, rice, and veggies to go. The next morning, according to the Digest article, custodians found her plate which she'd clearly forgotten covered with ants. The paper also ran a picture of a Mug Root Beer can she allegedly had left behind at a budget meeting, and which allegedly had spilled. "Quan also discards papers she no longer needs by just dumping them onto the floor wherever she is sitting, instead of nearby recycling bins," the caption noted.
While Handa blasts council members for all their perks, his City Hall critics point out that Sanjiv himself is an unapologetic freeloader. For one, he is regularly spotted helping himself to leftovers from the council's closed-session meetings. Handa figures there's nothing wrong with getting a free meal, since taxpayers paid for it in the first place. "My mind-set is, it's public money that paid for it; let whoever's at the meeting eat what's left over," he says.
"It's not that there's anything wrong with it; the food could go to the poor," Cowan concedes. "It's just low-life."
Having covered City Hall, and goaded it, longer than anyone else, Handa has created enemies in high places. Chief among them is Ignacio De La Fuente.
The council president refuses to speak to Sanjiv, who is likely the only reporter on De La Fuente's do-not-call list. Anyone who's covered the city knows De La Fuente has incredibly thick skin, and doesn't shy away from tough questions. For instance, when the Express called him for comment on Maurice Himy's arrest a case in which De La Fuente was implicated in a pay-to-play scheme he called back right away to deny any wrongdoing and make his case. Unlike the more sensitive folks in his business, he doesn't take bad publicity so personally that he hates individual reporters. De La Fuente knows they're just doing their jobs. With Sanjiv, though, it's personal.
For years, Handa has antagonized De La Fuente from the podium for missing votes, leaving meetings early, and doing favors for his buddies. At a council retreat six years ago, he reportedly snitched on the council president for driving his motorcycle with expired tags. Then there was the time he photographed De La Fuente throwing a cigarette butt on the ground when an ashtray was nearby.
The funny thing about this feud is that, on some level, the men share similar views: Both routinely complain about a lazy and wasteful bureaucracy. When told that he and Sanjiv may think alike, De La Fuente snapped, "I don't consider myself similar in any way, shape, or form to that piece of shit." Handa, meanwhile, argues that De La Fuente complains about the bureaucracy because it drags its feet on attending to the council president's pet projects.
Sanjiv's other main target is Jerry Brown. He has repeatedly criticized the mayor for, among other things, putting his skirt-chasing friend Jacques Barzaghi who ultimately got himself fired on the public payroll. The needling clearly has gotten under the mayor's skin. In his 2005 State of the City speech to the city council, Brown bragged that Forbes magazine had named Oakland one of the top places in the country to start a business. When Handa was called to speak at the ensuing council meeting, he said the mayor had neglected to mention that Forbes' data was based on the Oakland metropolitan statistical area, which included many surrounding cities. Afterward, an irritated Brown said Handa was wrong, and complained to a reporter, "He just makes shit up." It turned out Handa was right.
Handa thinks the mayor's anger toward him goes back to the days before Brown took office. Back then, he claims, Brown asked him to be his press secretary and warned him that if he turned down the offer, he'd have his access cut off. Handa says he rejected the deal. Gil Duran, Brown's current press secretary, says he doubts his boss ever made such an offer, and that he must have been joking if he did.
In any case, there's no denying that shortly after Brown took office in 1999, he blew up at Handa in public. According to the Oakland Tribune's account, Handa was working in the City Hall press room when he heard Brown's voice outside, so he went to ask the new mayor a question. When he did, Brown shot back, "We know you're living here," and vowed to change the rules about access to the press room, which acted as a temporary workspace for reporters covering meetings, but served as Handa's main office.
Other reporters had complained that Handa essentially took over the room with all of his stuff, city sources say. Given the state of his car, that doesn't seem like a stretch. But Sanjiv denies ever living there. He suspects the rumors got started because the nine-to-five civil servants couldn't understand why he was still in the building after hours. He was working, he says. Ex-Tribune reporter Williams agrees that the story of Handa living there was a myth.
A couple of years later, De La Fuente managed to get Sanjiv banned from the press room. Handa thinks it was payback: He says he'd run a story saying De La Fuente had steered a lucrative Y2K contract to a campaign donor. De La Fuente counters that he was simply responding to complaints. "I found out he was living in that place; he had all his belongings there," he says. "The other press people wouldn't use that room."
Besides, De La Fuente reasons, the press room is for the real press, and in his view Handa is nothing more than a gadfly: "This guy isn't a journalist, he's not a reporter. He's not a damn thing!"
The city's attempt to restrict access to the press room resulted in an outpouring of professional sympathy for Handa. The Tribune ran an editorial backing him up. The Northern California chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists protested the move and issued a statement: "Government officials taking it upon themselves to decide who is and is not a journalist is something that one would expect in a dictatorship, not a democracy."
City officials paid the protests no heed. After a temporary reprieve, Handa was officially exiled from the press room because he didn't have a media credential from the Oakland Police Department. Handa says he used to have one, but that one year the department decided not to renew it. He blames De La Fuente. The councilman responds that it wasn't ultimately his call, but notes that Handa didn't meet the city's legal criteria, which reserves press credentials for people in "the actual and bona fide employment of a newspaper of general circulation."
At the city council's last meeting, the press room was locked and unused.
Judging from Sanjiv Handa's continued omnipresence at City Hall, closing the press room did little to dissuade him. It's true that he has no office now the Piedmont Avenue Starbucks is the closest thing. He says he writes "on the fly," pecking away at his laptop's keyboard during meetings.
But writing what, exactly? While Handa takes public officials to task for being less than straight with the public, some subscribers wonder whether Handa has been less than straight about the frequency of the publications they paid for.
As with his personal life, Sanjiv is private, even evasive, when pressed for details about his business operation, allowing only that he makes "well under $50,000" a year. How Handa can afford to do what he does is a matter of considerable speculation at City Hall. One rumor is that he's a rich eccentric with a trust fund, which he denies. "If I was rich," he says, laughing, "I wouldn't be doing this." Yet despite his readership claims, he won't identify any of his corporate subscribers, saying he fears political repercussions for them. In addition, the Express made repeated requests over a couple of weeks to see recent examples of his newsletters. Every time, Sanjiv promised to produce them, then failed to do so. At the last minute, he produced a September 15 edition of The Oakland Bulletin detailing Maurice Himy's arrest.
Subscribers, too, have complained about sporadic newsletters. One is Greg Chan, community affairs officer for the East Bay Municipal Utility District. Last year, EBMUD paid Handa $995 for annual subscriptions to his various newsletters. Chan says he figured the subs would be a good way to keep tabs on what was happening in Oakland city government. But the utilities district only ever received two issues, plus a city directory, Chan says. Meanwhile, Peeples, the AC Transit board member who is Handa's neighbor, says he never stopped subscribing, but the newsletters stopped coming. Handa probably knows more than anyone about what's going on in Oakland, Peeples says, but that knowledge "tends to be limited to Sanjiv's head and isn't disseminated widely."
Whatever's going on with Handa's newsletters, these are changing times for the man. Jerry Brown will be termed out of the mayor's office come January, to be replaced by ex-Congressman Ron Dellums. For whatever reason, Dellums, well known for his dislike of the media in general and reporters in particular, has taken a shine to Handa. During the campaign, for instance, Dellums turned down interview requests from NBC affiliate KNTV, but let Sanjiv interview him on his cable show. At Dellums' victory press conference after the election, he complimented Handa, calling him an "encyclopedia."
During the mayoral transition period, Sanjiv has had enviable access to Dellums' advisory task forces, which have just begun to meet. While the Chron's Chip Johnson and other local reporters have complained of lack of access to the task forces, Handa walks freely in and out of their City Hall meetings. Task force member Pamela Drake says that at a recent meeting, Kitty Kelly Epstein, who is coordinating the citizen panels, told those in the room that if they had questions about city government, they should ask Sanjiv. Handa is now also a contributor to the Oakland Post, which is owned by Paul Cobb, a Dellums supporter.
This chumminess with the Dellums camp has insiders wondering: What will Handa do in an administration that likes him? They forget that he had a good relationship with Brown's predecessor, Elihu Harris. Perhaps too good. When Harris ran for re-election in 1994, Handa served as an unpaid campaign spokesman. Two years later, the city tapped him to help implement Harris' "Information Initiative," a community outreach program. Handa did workshops with the mayor himself and produced a city directory, ultimately earning a $22,000 paycheck.
Doing business with someone you're covering is another no-no in journalism. Handa insists the payments didn't keep him from writing critical stories, although there's no doubt Handa didn't antagonize Harris the way he has Jerry Brown.
After fourteen-plus years of pestering city officials, however, Handa says he's seriously thinking of doing something else for a living. "I just turned fifty," he says. "In the next two years, I'm going to make this or break this in terms of professionalizing it, going to these weekly print publications and do the Web site. If it's not financially feasible ... then I'm basically going to give up on it."
Before he quits, he would like to train someone else to do what he does, whatever that is. You can picture the "help wanted" sign: Seeking dedicated person for a rewarding but low-paying position.
Sure sounds like journalism.
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