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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
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Cheney takes a deep breath and shakes his head. The 28 moves forward and so does he. Slowly. "I'm right. They're wrong. It's just that simple." But little in the realm of Muni politics is ever simple.

The files of internal Muni documents and myriad newspaper articles Cheney fastidiously maintains is several feet thick. Today's readers might bog down while wading into his countless campaigns to ensure safety and efficiency on vehicles that long ago aged out of the system. But those battles were, most assuredly, written up, day after day and year after year, for the newspaper readers of the time. It affected their lives — and, in some cases, still affects yours.

Cheney's public campaign to curtail overtime abuses sparked a criminal probe. But that inquiry ran aground in 1985, when investigators noted that their methods couldn't ensnare time-card cheats colluding with supervisors. This was the exact scenario Cheney warned of.

After a contentious year of scratching and clawing, Cheney unearthed handwritten foreman logs (Cheney's Muni colleagues often use him as a conduit for passing along information while keeping themselves insulated from the blowback of publicly doing so). These ledgers revealed favored Muni supervisors were bagging up to $6,000 in monthly overtime (around $13,000 in 2013 dollars).

Fast-forwarding through another vitriolic year, Cheney's painstakingly detailed communiques to the press and Board of Supervisors ("Michael B. Cheney, Civil Servant") led to damning audits of first Muni and then the entire city. One agonizing year hence, in 1988, Cheney helped Board of Supervisors President Wendy Nelder draft a citywide overtime law. "Mike came into my office a lot. He was very serious; I don't remember him smiling a lot," recalls Nelder. "If the government exists to serve the people, you'd hope to have a Mike Cheney in every department." She laughs. "He would make a good Muni king."

But no one is offering up any thrones. And this story doesn't exactly end happily ever after.

Nelder's overtime law was, within two decades, utterly ignored. And yet, coming in an era when city employees could jack up their pensions via overtime pay, it potentially saved the city millions. Considering the long-term, ongoing nature of pension payments, it may yet.

For Cheney, it was a strange and terrible time. In the midst of his overtime abuse crusade, superiors hit him with three pages of misconduct violations, the most damning of which was an accusation he'd threatened to harm Mayor Dianne Feinstein — a charge he denies to this day: "They were painting me as a Dan White."

It was effective: "My colleagues would say, 'What's with you? This guy's a troublemaker. Why are you listening to this mechanic instead of the people who are hired with great salaries for their expertise in transit?'" recalls former Supervisor Jim Gonzalez.

Gonzalez has no regrets about trusting Cheney over Muni higher-ups. But, using diplomatic phrasings Cheney never could, the former supervisor notes that Muni bosses' disparagement — and Cheney's utter inability to adopt "the subtle, poised monotone of a transit official" — had their effect on other city politicos.

On the work floor, Cheney encountered fellow mechanics who were none too pleased he was unraveling their lucrative overtime game. There were direct threats. Others were indirect.

One day, on Alemany Boulevard, the chain in Cheney's motorcycle inexplicably slipped, causing him to lose power and coast to a stop. Upon further inspection, he discovered a washer had failed. But it didn't fail in an entirely conventional manner. It had, somehow, come undone and was rattling around alongside its securing bolt — which had come undone as well. The chain could have just as easily locked up instead of merely slipping — which would have stopped the bike as abruptly as slamming into a wall.

Asked what kind of knowledge it would take to tamper with the motorcycle, Cheney offers a wan smile: "You'd have to be a mechanic."


"What Cheney uncovered needed to be uncovered and needed to be addressed," then-Muni general Manager William Stead told the Examiner in 1988 about rampant overtime abuse. "He's very bright and has some real good ideas — it's just that most of them can't be absorbed into the system because they hit like hand grenades."

Stead took exception to Cheney's public accusations of extortion. Yet, within that '88 article, he admitted offering Cheney the option of being brought up on character-tarnishing charges or having them dropped and accepting a higher-paying job — on the condition of press silence.

"Muni needs people like him. But a family unit and everyone around you is not one big Muni," says Michelle Cheney, Mike's youngest daughter. "If you're always on the lookout for flaws, you will find them. But people get tired of that. And they don't stick around."

Mike Cheney has spent his life repairing gears, but his personality has none. He runs at one speed. Schnurr, his erstwhile wife of 24 years, thinks of him whenever she reads their youngest grandchild The Little Engine That Could. "Mike isn't going to stop for anything," she says. But then she stops smiling. That's the problem: He isn't going to stop for anything — or anyone. "Mike was always right about Muni. But people don't like to be fixed. I don't know if he realizes that."

He does. He realizes what he's doing. But Cheney — twice divorced and separated from the third future former Mrs. Cheney — can't help himself. He isn't going to stop. He simply doesn't know how.

"I understand I'm unrelenting. Having the manic depressive disorder and doing the work I do, I know I wear on people. I don't blame them!" he says.

"Sometimes I'm difficult to be with when I'm alone."


About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Bio:
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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