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 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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