Eccentric Oakland City Government Gadfly Sanjiv Handa Passes

Dec. 27, 2011 | You would be hard-pressed to find a true consensus for finding a lone word to describe a person. One word always passed through the lips of Oakland journalists and government officials when they described Sanjiv Handa: gadfly.

Handa was found dead Tuesday by police at his home on Piedmont Avenue. The cause of death is unknown at this time.

The thickly set Handa, who the East Bay Express perfectly described as balding in “Friar Tuck” way, was literally fixture at Oakland City Council meetings for two decades. Some even accused him a few years back of living in the press room at City Hall, but that wasn’t true.

Exactly what Handa did was always fodder for ridicule, mythology, admiration and often all three at the same time.

He wrote and published the pricey East Bay News Service, but often failed to have any work to show for the extensive hours he put in cover not only council meetings, but Oakland’s extensive battery of committee meetings.

What consistently confounded working journalists’ was Handa’s propensity for not only covering the meetings, but weighing in with his own personal opinions in public session. Handa was known for deftly gaming public speaker cards for his own benefit and others. Other times city council meetings appeared to exist solely for Handa to hold court. It was not uncommon for Handa to gobble up 20 minutes or more in total speaking time at any given meeting.

I sometimes wondered who gave Handa the right to do some of things he appeared to being doing in chambers. During a particularly raucous and heavily-attended meeting three months ago before the rise of Occupy Oakland at Frank Ogawa Plaza, it seemed to me Handa was currying favor with certain mainstream journalists and television reporters by saving them seats in the front row. Later, from the podium he would berate Mayor Jean Quan for displacing the popular Margaret Gordon from the Port of Oakland Commission. Of course, like others on the dais, Quan dropped her head and starred at the desk until the beating from Handa was over.

Who knows what Handa meant to Oakland, City Hall, and the craft of journalism. He was a blogger before the term entered popular lexicon and he blurred the lines between traditional media and opinionated talk radio-style banter that took hold in recent years on cable television.

Handa, to me, represented the reason I wanted to be a journalist. It’s the reason I suspect almost every person went to journalism school in the first place–to shine a light on government and to catch the crooks who undermine the public trust and not to be a defender of big business and the elite. Handa did more than shine a light, he dragged the klieg lights into every single Oakland council meeting for 20 years and we are all better for it.

A gadfly, in general, is not meant to be seen or heard, but lurks out of sight, prodding and poking. Sanjiv’s spirit will always be there watching and irritating the crooks. Councilman Ignacio De La Fuente, I hope you ain’t scared of ghosts.