What Cheney learned is that no one could do anything worse to him than what he'd already experienced. "Mike couldn't fix mom," recalls Bob. "So he was going to fix something else." And this he did — to the chagrin of a legion of Muni managers.


Cheney taps the brake and slows to a stop like every other driver trapped behind the No. 28 bus on 19th Avenue. There's no hurry, but he's irritated nevertheless. That bus would be moving faster, damn it, if only Muni's powers-that-be would listen to him.

For decades, Cheney has been preaching the "skip-stop method": a system in which an "A" bus or train picks up and drops off passengers at every other stop and a "B" vehicle serves the others. This practice has reduced travel times and increased carrying capacities worldwide while reducing wear and tear on vehicles no longer required to stop and start as often ("It's inertia, dude!"). Cheney laid out his case for skip-stopping "with the precision of an engineering professor" in that '98 article.

Cheney in a 1988 Examiner article titled "'Pit Bull' Hounds Muni Management."
SF Examiner/Katy Raddatz, 1988
Cheney in a 1988 Examiner article titled "'Pit Bull' Hounds Muni Management."
Mike Cheney hopes his wind energy device inaugurates "a new age of sail."
Photograph by Gil Riego Jr.
Mike Cheney hopes his wind energy device inaugurates "a new age of sail."

A long, straight, flat route like the 28 would be perfect for skip-stopping, and would make the perfect test case. But it's never happened. "And why won't they do it?" Cheney asks, his voice rising and leaving little time for an answer to this question. "Because it'd work!

"You take the bumpers out of a pinball machine, the ball gets to the bottom faster, right? It's just physics, dude!" He's yelling now. "You see that bus? There's people hanging out the windows. Because they're stopping at every stop! You don't need to stop at every stop!" Why must it fall upon him to point out the obvious, again and again and again? "I'm just a fucking mechanic!" he cries.

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.

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2 comments
WOODPECKER
WOODPECKER

Cheney may be a maverick , but his way of not helping those mechanic"s after him to carry the flame of hopeĀ  does continue. Instead he took a couch deal and let all others to be \harassed and not follow the contract. The supervisors' are the ones that do not follow the contract that are fellow 1414 IAM union members.

CA_Graft
CA_Graft

Cheney is quite a remarkable person. It's unfortunate SF isn't a city that values improvement nor is CA a state that cares about how it's rotting. It's not until SF becomes a Detroit and CA becomes a MI that it matters - but by then everyone that can will have left. It's currently advantageous for the tech industry to be located in SF, but someday that may change - just like the car companies no longer felt it was needed to be in Detroit. But, nothing changes until rock bottom - until then people dislike "gentrification".

 

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