Pest to the Powerful 

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

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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."


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