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May 20, 1999


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Oakland Gadfly Handa Gets Under A Powerful Mayor's Skin

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Arthur J Pais

Sanjiv Handa says it is not true, simply not true, that some people should think he lives in Oakland City's pressroom.

True, Oakland is one of the poorest cities in America, with nearly 40 per cent of its 300,000 population living on some form of government subsidiary, but Handa, 42 and unmarried, is not a homeless man.

Indeed, he says the several newsletters he produces and distributes mostly on the Internet help him make a comfortable living (with some help from the marketing courses he offers). The Six Minute Report is one of his more popular weekly newsletters and is read by civic and business leaders, investors and academics.

Breaking News published 10 to 15 times a day covers events round the clock. Subscriptions for the newsletters packages range from $ 98 to $ 895. While some of his newsletters each have 300 subscribers, Handa says many government and private agencies buy the reprint rights and distribute some of the issues to thousands of their members.

The Oakland Tribune calls him the "ultimate insider" in Oakland, referring to his passion to cover the city hall meetings -- and examine its policies under a sharp journalistic microscope. 'He may be the only one who knows who is running City Hall,' the Tribune says.

Handa says despite his preoccupation with life and politics in Oakland, he indeed has a home.

Jerry Brown But Jerry Brown, the former California governor and a former presidential candidate, does not seem to believe Handa. Nor does Brown's press secretary, Stacey Wells. They recently demanded that he surrendered the key to the press room, so that he won't be able to use it after the regular hours. But they deny they are making it difficult for Handa to get information about the city government

Before the key became an issue, Handa had chanced upon Brown late in an evening recently and asked him a question based on what he had overheard.

Brown was not pleased, Handa says.

"Jerry said, 'You are living here. We are going to get you out of here,' " Handa says.

Handa immediately remembered how two years ago -- under another mayor -- the city had taken over the pressroom and decided to keep it open from 8 am to 6 pm because Handa was using the room more than other reporters.

Now the city has told Handa he cannot have a key to the pressroom, which means he will strictly have to abide by the regular schedule.

Handa and his supporters believe the city is not interested in following the rules as such but in limiting his access. He feels his constant questions about city hall policies irk Brown, who has been the mayor for about five months, having contested the post to make Oakland a model city. Brown, a high profile and left-leaning politician, spent several weeks in India at Mother Teresa's hospices a few years ago before deciding to enter city politics.

"I am a social liberal and fiscal conservative," Handa, who has a degree in business management from the University of California at Berkeley, says in a telephone interview. "I love to question populist statements and hold the politicians accountable. Naturally they don't like me."

He will share his problems and concerns this weekend with 60 other journalists at a three-day conference at Peu Center for Civic Journalism in San Francisco.

His interest in journalism goes back to his college days when he established and edited several student publications, says the Chandigarh-born Handa who migrated to America at the age of nine with his parents.

As a student and civic person, Handa says he always felt that the big newspapers did not care much about how the governments in smaller cities and big towns worked. So in 1990, when he was living in Emeryville, on the outskirts of Oakland, he started The Five Minute Report, written mostly by himself.

"I reckoned it took about five minutes to read it," he says referring to the title. "There were a lot of issues involving land deals and businesses which the other publications ignored because they were afraid of offending advertisers. But I did not have to worry about anything like that. Who was going to advertise in my paper?"

Even today his publications are ad-free.

Three years later, after realizing that his self-written and self-edited (with an occasional freelance contribution) two page newsletter was being taken seriously, he launched The Six Minute Report to cover Oakland's City Hall.

Today, his East Bay News Service is regularly attacked or admired for the stories in its publications.

"Mr Handa pointed out in his newsletter that we have accidentally voted ourselves a pay cut," council member Dick Spees told his colleagues two years ago. "We need to take action to correct it."

Council members have often asked the mayors why they were not informed about key changes or why a consultant had quit. "Why did I have to learn that from reading The Six Minute Report?" council member John Russo asked after reading that the restructuring consultant had quit.

"From college days my philosophy has been that ordinary people do make a difference," Handa says. "But to do that they should have clear information before them."

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