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Remembering Sanjiv Handa, the one-man news team that kept the Oakland City Council in line

Oakland City Hall. Flickr photo by mcjohnnyz. www.flickr.com/photos/mcjohnnyz

In the last week of 2011, a man named Sanjiv Handa passed away. KALW’s Rina Palta tweeted, “Oakland City Council meetings will be a lot less interesting.” It was a sentiment shared by many people. Handa, who was 55, spoke at nearly every meeting of the Oakland city council for two decades. He went to subcommittee meetings, and commission meetings. He researched legislation, and he dogged city officials over every rule violation. And he always introduced himself the same way:“For the record, Sanjiv Handa, East Bay News Service."

From our archives, Sandhya Dirks brings you this profile of the man known as Oakland’s Gadfly.

SANDHYA DIRKS: The man standing at the lecturn in Oakland's elegant city hall is wearing shabby jeans and a coffee-stained polo shirt.

This is Sanjiv Handa. He's addressing the City Council, and this is where you can find him most of the time, talking on any and every thing.

With his bad combover and shaggy reporter chic flair, Handa isn't afraid to raise his voice, or to rail against the council members.

Handa is a one man news team: he is the sole founder, editor and writer of the East Bay News Service. And he's been publishing since long before the internet made bloggers commonplace. Handa has always had a lot to say.

NANCY NADEL: He has an absolute right to say what he wants to say, but his energy is extremely draining and ineffective.

That's City Councilperson Nancy Nadel. Handa is often called the gadfly of city hall, and Nadal says that's true: his words often sound like a lot of angry buzzing.

NADEL: He sometimes does have a kernal of truth in there, and a good idea in there, but if its always put out in an attack mode, it's not heard and not responded to in a way that's effective.

But Handa describes himself differently, as part government watchdog and part citizen journalist. And he says he's on a one-man mission to make Oakland City government as transparent as possible.

SANJIV HANDA: Hiya, how are you? SANDHYA DIRKS: I'm great, how are you doing?

I meet Handa before a recent council meeting. We're in Oakland's cavernous City Hall and it's almost like he's inviting me into his living room.

HANDA: Okay, come on in. DIRKS: Thank you. HANDA: Sure.

And it it is like his living room, because Handa basically lives here.

HANDA: I have been at every single council meeting except one since 1992, and I've missed a couple of committee meetings here and there, but I've been at almost all committee meetings and most of the board and commissions, the key ones at least.

For Handa, it is important that everyone be involved in the democratic process.

HANDA: if you are going to have a democratic society of any kind you need free flowing information, and you need somebody to provide objective background so people can make up their own mind. I often speak at these meetings, but I never take a position on a project or cause or anything. I'm just speaking to the process issue and trying to get information into the public domain.

Back at his press table, Handa is waiting for the meeting to begin and people are starting to filter in.

HANDA: Hi Jim, how are you?

Fellow community activist Jim Dexter walks by. He checks out Handa's box of day old pastries.

HANDA: Oh go for it [laughing].

Dexter grabs a donut and tells a story about just how outraged Handa can get at the antics of city committee meetings.

JIM DEXTER: He was so upset at what the committee had not done correctly associated with the procedures surrounding of the Brown and Sunshine Act.

The Brown and Sunshine acts are Handa's battle axes. The Brown Act was originally passed by the State of California in 1953: it requires all local government meetings be open to every citizen. Handa tells a story about the lengths he went to get the Oakland Musuem to open up its board meetings.

HANDA: I spent a couple days in the city clerks office, made 'em pull stuff out of their dusty storage, and they pulled out like 38 bankers boxes of documents. And in box 22, near the back, was the file on the museum foundation.

You can just imagine Handa pouring through boxes and boxes of paperwork. It sounds like a scene out of John Grisham thriller. But Handa wasn't looking for the elusive evidence that would free his innocent client. He was just trying to get a museum board meeting made public. Still, he found what he was looking for: proof that the museum foundation was subject to the Brown Act. And that's not the only law on the books that requires local government transparency.

HANDA: In January of 199,7 the city of Oakland, city council, unanimously passed the Sunshine Ordinance.

One of the things the Sunshine Ordinance calls for is advance publication of agendas and staff reports of all committee and council meetings. Soon after Sunshine was passed, Handa tried to get some reports.  When he ran into trouble, it marked a turning point for him.

HANDA: I showed up at the City Clerk's office and the then City Clerk, Ceda Floyd, basically slammed the door in my face. Saying "it's five o'clock, I'm going home, the reports aren't ready." I think that's where my crusader battle first started. That I am somebody who just doesn't let go. And until this is working smoothly I feel that's one of my missions.

Handa doesn't let go, and he doesn't forget. He remembers everything. That's because Handa talks to everyone.

HANDA: One of the reasons I am able to articulate what is going on and have a better handle on what's going on is cause I talk to staff, cause I'm not pushing an agenda, I'm not advocating for a project, I'm not looking for a contract, I'm not pushing a council member, I'm not looking for a job. I had one staff person tell me the other day, I was passing out a piece of information about a community meeting that was coming up, and he looked and he said, "You know, I get more information and support from you than I do from most of my colleagues."

Loved or hated, Handa isn't going anywhere. He says his mission for transparency in city government is more important now than ever.

HANDA: In the mid-nineties at an Oakland City council meeting, you would have 15-20 journalists; you would have two reporters from the Tribune and one or two columnists, you would have a Chronicle reporter, some one from the Examiner, somebody from the now defunct, not defunct but cut back Berkeley Voice, list went on and on and on. And as time progressed all of those have disappeared.

Handa believes that the crisis in journalism is directly linked to so many of the scandals that have beset the City in recent years. He also believes that no story is too small.

So Handa keeps on showing up at city hall and publishing his newsletter. It's a newsletter he started in print almost 20 years ago, that now goes out over the web. In this way, Handa is the quintessential citizen journalist. But what he also suggests is that the future of journalism isn't so different from its past. From pamphleteer to blogger, independent reporters like Handa may be the last ones standing: often at the lectern, berating the city council on yet another point of contention.

In Oakland, I'm Sandhya Dirks for Crosscurrents.

Sandhya got her start as a reporting fellow at KALW, working on award winning radio documentaries about crime and justice and education in Oakland. She reported on the 2012 presidential election in Iowa, for Iowa Public Radio, where she also covered diversity and mental health issues.