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Mr. Fix-It: A Mechanic Turns from Trying to Save Muni to Trying to Save the World 

Wednesday, Jun 19 2013

"Here's how you gotta start your story, dude," says Mike Cheney, matter-of-factly. "You create this scene where there's some sort of ceremony out on Altamont Pass and they're removing the last windmill. They're pulling down that sucker like it's a statue of Saddam Hussein!"

In Cheney's vision, energy sources — including the windmill — will be supplanted by the one he's invented, which will set right the existing, flawed order.

He is a man with a need to fix all that is broken. Appropriately, he's a diesel mechanic, but Cheney is driven to do far more than repair corporeal buses with corporeal wrenches. In 33 years and change as a front-line Muni employee, Cheney has blown the whistle dozens of times, busting up overtime schemes and campaigns of waste and deceit that bled the system's coffers and compromised the safety of riders and workers. His earnest letters to half a dozen mayors and countless government officials and reporters are — invariably — signed "Michael B. Cheney, Civil Servant."

Every decade and change, a big Mike Cheney story splashes across a San Francisco newspaper. In 1988, a San Francisco Examiner piece titled "'Pit Bull' Hounds Muni Management" was illustrated via a bus sporting Cujo fangs. Ten years later, an Ex article called "The Man Who Would Be Muni King" — in which Cheney held forth on how he'd fix the ailing system — was knocked off the front page of the paper's later editions when an N-Judah train rumbled between Embarcadero and Van Ness stations without a driver.

Cheney's drive to mend all he surveys has led to no small amount of personal destruction. But, from this place, he recently conjured the greatest repair job of his life: Inspired by the towering America's Cup yachts gliding across the bay, he was struck with the concept of a wind energy system he has since christened the "SailWing." There's no limit to what this could fix, Cheney thinks: After that last windmill is yanked out — in goes a SailWing. "There you go, dude! That's how you start your story."

Maybe the next Mike Cheney story, circa 2028, will begin like that. But not this one.

This one starts here: In, on, or under a bus — which is where you'd find Cheney on most days going back to 1979. And that's where, perhaps 20 years back, a stranger sought him out. Cheney, to this day, has no idea who that man was. But this fellow mechanic knew him: Cheney was the whistleblower; the guy who'd call in the press — or the feds. The chronic, throbbing pain in Muni management's ass.

The stranger had a problem. The hulking cranes used to hoist Muni vehicles in his repair facility were decrepit and in dire need of replacement. Could Cheney take a look at them? Careful to follow Muni protocol, Cheney ambled over to his colleague's shop — but took care not to set foot within. "Whaddya want me to do, dude?" he recalls asking from the street.

"You've already done it," Cheney was told. "You see those guys over there? Those are the bosses. They see me talking to you, they know what we're talking about — and they know who you are."

The stranger later called Cheney to inform him the cranes had been replaced. The two have never spoken since.

San Francisco, where Cheney was born and raised, is an increasingly ephemeral town. People come and go. City workers and the inhabitants who depend upon their services are a rotating cast, but city institutions are permanent.

This remains a city in which good intentions are valued more than results. Addressing problems via the tried and true "put it off, put it off, blow it off" method is easier than ever in a society where everyone has the technological wherewithal to complain instantaneously, but little time or inclination to do more.

The dysfunctionality of our transit system is, ever increasingly, assumed to be its natural state. Complaining about Muni is, for San Franciscans, the closest thing we have to a uniting, even sovereign force.

Cheney wants no part of this. Every time he's ripped Muni, called in the press, or filed a report with the FBI or other federal agencies — and he's gone to the feds on at least half a dozen occasions in his estimation — Cheney didn't just point out a problem. He proposed solutions. Complaints are cheap. Fixes have value. And Cheney is hard-wired to fix. But also to fight.

"I see these things," he says, a succession of Muni battles playing on a loop in his mind's eye, "and I just can't help myself."

And he hasn't helped himself. Muni passengers able to tweet #MuniFail on a train without doors randomly popping open in the rain, brake lines failing, or a hefty chunk of their fare dollars being wasted via inefficiencies or funneled into the pockets of middle managers on overtime have benefited from Cheney's efforts. He has not.

"Here's a mechanic trying to tell managers how to run their business. And they resent that," says Jack Blanchfield, Muni's former general superintendent of diesel maintenance — and one of those managers.

Blanchfield sees Cheney as someone who has bettered passengers' lives: "There are a lot of improvements directly related to him." Intriguingly, one of those improvements was Cheney's yearslong drive to clean up Muni's overtime practices which exposed, among other things, that Blanchfield's overtime haul put his income on par with Muni's then-general manager.

Not everyone takes kindly to that sort of thing: "Mike had a lot of real good ideas," Blanchfield continues, "but if you don't get along with everybody in meetings, they take away your chair and you're not invited no more."

And that's why Cheney went to the press or the law, or wielded that possibility like a cudgel, when Muni spent hundreds of thousands of dollars purchasing wheelchair lift equipment its own workers could have crafted for pennies on the dollar; crippled service by warehousing buses with minor deficiencies for months on end; gamed vehicle safety inspections; or left functioning cameras on the shelves while broken ones missed beatings, robberies, or people on the tracks.

About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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