January 6, 2012

Folks tend to say things at people’s funerals that they apparently never considered saying while the deceased person was walking the earth.

In that category, clearly, was the announcement by Oakland City Council President Larry Reid at the recent Fremont funeral of Oakland government watchdog Sanjiv Handa that Mr. Reid was going to reopen the long-closed pressroom at Oakland City Hall and rename it in honor of Mr. Handa.           

Mr. Reid said that he had not agreed with the decision of “a couple of [his] colleagues” on the Council several years back to close the pressroom.

I’m not sure who all of the Council colleagues were that Mr. Reid was talking about. The locking down of the pressroom in 2001 was taken by then-Council President Ignacio De La Fuente—unilaterally, from what I remember, and not through official Council action—and was specifically designed to keep Mr. Handa from using it as his base headquarters in his reporting on various Council meetings and city government activities.           

According to a March 23, 2001 letter sent to Oakland City officials by the Northern California Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) protesting Mr. De La Fuente’s actions, “Under the previous policy, media access to the pressroom was nearly unlimited, and though the room was kept locked for security reasons, approximately 20 journalists were issued keys to the room. Under the new policy, effective March 19, 2001, all keys were taken back and press room hours severely curtailed; access is now permitted only during meetings of the City Council and its committees—all day Tuesday and two hours on Thursday—and during ‘emergency or any special circumstances.’ According to our information, collected in interviews conducted by SPJ, the new policy was instituted by City Council President Ignacio De La Fuente on his own initiative in an attempt to restrict the newsgathering activities of one journalist, Sanjiv Handa of the East Bay News Service. Mr. Handa typically spends upwards of 60 hours per week covering city politics, most of that on site at City Hall. It is a rare council, committee, or commission meeting indeed that does not find Mr. Handa in attendance. Mr. Handa is well known as a ‘gadfly’ journalist and has written articles critical of Mr. De La Fuente, other officials, and city government generally for many years.”           

If Mr. Reid, indeed, had been opposed to Mr. De La Fuente’s imposed restrictions at the City Hall pressroom back in 2001, I don’t remember him publicly saying anything about it back then. Nor do I remember any other member of the Council speaking out in protest at the time it happened.

Meanwhile, the pressroom remained under restrictive lockdown through two Council presidencies following De La Fuente’s: Jane Brunner’s from 2007 through 2011 and then Mr. Reid himself, who was chosen as Oakland City Council President in January of 2011. Mr. Reid, therefore, had a full year before Mr. Handa’s death to reverse Mr. De La Fuente’s actions, and conceivably could have unlocked the Oakland City Hall pressroom any time he wanted. The time he chose was a few days after Mr. Handa’s death, when Mr. Handa himself was no longer around to be able to use it.           

Mr. Reid—who was quite often one of Mr. Handa’s prime Council targets for exposure, lecture, and attack—appeared genuinely sorrowed at Mr. Handa’s passing, saying many kind things about him at the funeral, adding that outside the Council meetings they were friends. Mr. Reid retold the story of how he tried to get Mr. Handa to go to the hospital when he appeared ill at meetings in his last days, and no-one should doubt his sincerity when he said he wished he had been more forceful in trying to overcome Mr. Handa’s refusal to seek medical attention shortly before his death.          

But regardless of how he actually felt personally about Mr. Handa, if Mr. Reid thought that unlocking the Oakland City Hall pressroom was the right thing to do, he should have done it while Mr. Handa was still alive and able to enjoy its use. To wait until Mr. Handa’s death, and then to use the occasion to name the pressroom in Mr. Handa’s honor, makes the act seem cynical, politically-served, and more than a little tawdry.           

Still and all, at least Mr. Reid showed up for Mr. Handa’s funeral and spoke.           

Unless I completely missed seeing her, Oakland Mayor Jean Quan was not in attendance at the funeral. Certainly neither she nor any representative of her administration was among those who came up to the mic to pay their respects and tributes and say their goodbyes.

Mr. Handa could be absolutely relentless when he had a politician in his sights, and his policy criticisms too often strayed into personal attacks, many of which could be quite vicious. Ms. Quan was one of those persons Mr. Handa was particularly ticked off with over the years, especially after she was elected mayor in 2010, and there was clearly no love lost between the two. But for all his faults, Mr. Handa was an important figure in and around Oakland City Hall, a cage-rattler beloved by the many who depended upon his unending stream of information and challenges to the “bloody big heads” of Oakland government. Many of these Oakland residents, public officials, and political and community activists traveled down to Fremont to help lay Mr. Handa to rest. Out of respect both for a fallen opponent as well as for all of those Oakland citizens who appreciated Mr. Handa and his work, Ms. Quan or someone from her staff or family should have been to the funeral as well, to give the official word from the head of Oakland City government.

It would have served as a gesture that Jean Quan is, indeed, the mayor of all of Oakland’s citizens, and not just those who agree with her, or are polite in their disagreement.

NOTE AND CORRECTION: In the original version of this column, following the statement that Ms. Quan had not appeared at Mr. Handa's funeral, I wrote that "Nor, to my knowledge, did the Quan Administration issue a formal statement marking Mr. Handa’s passing."

While it was true that no statement was issued "to my knowledge," a statement was, in fact, issued, and so that assertion was incorrect in giving such an impression.

No such statement appears on Ms. Quan's official website, nor did I receive such a statement from the mayor's press spokesperson or read it in any of the accounts I saw following Mr. Handa's passing.

However, after a reader corrected my error, I located a December 28, 2011 story on the CBS5 website ("Longtime Oakland City Hall Reporter Sanjiv Handa Dies At 55") which noted that "Mayor Jean Quan said in a statement, 'We are sad to hear of Sanjiv Handa's passing. He spent most of his life at City Hall. There will never be another Sanjiv Handa.'"

That statement was repeated in a December 30, 2011 Bay Citizen story ("Services For Oakland City Hall Gadfly Sanjiv Handa Planned For Saturday"), which included a further statement by Ms. Quan that she was "concerned about [Sanjiv's] health at the last council meeting."

My apologies for the error.

My conclusion concerning the failure of a representative to make remarks at Mr. Handa's funeral stands.