Pest to the Powerful 

City Hall gadfly? Oakland municipal watchdog? Citizen journalist? Just what is Sanjiv Handa up to anyway?

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.


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