Pest to the Powerful 

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

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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."


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