OAKLAND -- Sanjiv Handa, a City Hall gadfly for more than 20 years who hammered city leaders on open government and regularly spoke on every item at City Council meetings, was found dead in a home near Piedmont Avenue on Tuesday. He was 55.
The cause of death will likely be determined by an autopsy later this week.
At a council meeting last week, City Councilmember Pat Kernighan (Grand Lake-Chinatown) said she noticed that Handa had arm tremors and trouble standing. He was found by a friend in her home at 12:35 p.m. Tuesday. It was not clear if Handa had been living at the woman's residence.
Handa was scheduled to visit his parents in San Jose last week but canceled because he was ill and could barely speak, his mother Ruchira Handa said.
"Yesterday he called me and said that he was feeling much better. But this afternoon I called and there was no response."
Since 1991, Handa had attended just about every council, planning commission, and committee meeting, nitpicking council member's actions and keeping track of minutiae that no one else seemed to care about. At council meetings, Handa frequently spoke on multiple items on the agenda. Rather than speak on each individual item, he was given blocks of time to speak his mind on the issues during public comment.
"He spent most of his life at City Hall," Mayor Jean Quan said in a statement. "There will never be another Sanjiv Handa."
Many council members openly ignored him when he took the podium to harangue officials about what he said was gross mismanagement of funds and what he saw as failure to provide basic services.
However, many who work at City Hall acknowledged that Handa was perhaps the most knowledgeable person regarding the city's history and government workings. And many turned to him for help with historical research.
As sole proprietor of his subscription email newsletter, the East Bay News Service, Handa prided himself on holding elected officials accountable and strictly obeying the anti-secrecy mandates in government law. He called himself a journalist but crossed the line of traditional journalism ethics by publicly commenting on everything from potholes to port operations.
Handa's mother said that the family had learned to accept that he would devote his professional life to keeping tabs on City Hall.
"So many times I said you should have a regular job or something like that, but he had his own mind from the very beginning."
He was not always an objective observer: He once emailed Peralta Community College District officials legal arguments to help them defend against a public-records lawsuit the Bay Area News Group had filed.
Council President Larry Reid said he first met Handa in 1991, and despite their differences, Reid called him a friend and said he saw a softer side of Handa.
"We always disagreed, but our disagreements didn't stop us from being friends," Reid said. "He knew I was diabetic, and on committee days, when I hadn't eaten, he would go out and bring me back something to eat. And he knew I needed to drink water, so he was always giving me water."
When Reid ran for office, he paid Handa to create a newsletter and a directory of city services.
"Sanjiv was truly brilliant, and I'm going to miss him," Reid said.
In 2006, Handa did miss a council meeting because he was receiving the "Bulldog" award from the Society of Professional Journalists at a banquet in San Francisco.
"It was the first time I had missed a council meeting since I started covering the various meetings of the council that are governed by the anti-secrecy in government Brown Act and the council's own Sunshine Act," Handa said at the time.
For all that Handa knew about Oakland, the city's leaders knew little about him. He came to the United States from India with a brother and his parents as a child and later majored in business administration at UC Berkeley.
His landlord Chris Peeples, a member of the AC Transit board of directors, said Handa rented a two-bedroom apartment from him on Howe Street. Last year, Peeples filed legal action, which is still pending, to evict Handa because he said he hadn't paid rent "in a long time."
Peeples said he didn't aggressively pursue eviction because Handa knew so much about the intricacies of city government and city laws that he could prove troublesome for a landlord.
Councilmember Ignacio De La Fuente had his share of run-ins with Handa since taking office 20 years ago. He believes he is the only elected official to ever have Handa tossed from a meeting because he wouldn't stop talking.
Still, De La Fuente said he had a grudging respect for the man who badgered city leaders for nearly 20 years, especially his knack for getting and sharing information from city departments, often before the City Council knew about it.
"We had our run ins, but I learned that people have their roles, that they are here for a reason," De La Fuente said. "Everybody has something that makes them tick, and I guess (being the council watchdog) was one of the things that made him tick. ... I guess we were his life."