HOTSEAT- Life of Brian: Wheeler hoards his hats

Sometimes Brian Wheeler has to check and see which hat he's wearing. Is it the Charlottesville Tomorrow hat, the one he wears when he's a nonpartisan watchdog attending three or four local government meetings a week? Or is it his School Board hat, under which he spends 10 to 20 hours a week as the at-large member for Albemarle County?

"I've been observing meetings, and there have been occasions when I've almost voted from the audience," he confesses.

Now he's seeking a second term on the School Board. 

"There's more work to do," he says. "The challenge is, you can have lots of ideas in a campaign, and then realize you're only one of seven decision makers."

Wheeler says he always discloses which hat he's wearing at meetings. "It's easier than I thought with Charlottesville Tomorrow because it's nonpartisan, and we don't take positions. And that's made me a much better School Board member, observing other government meetings during the day. I can see how other pieces fit together– such as transportation– more than when I was working at SNL Financial."

Wheeler is a founder and executive director of Charlottesville Tomorrow, which launched its website in February 2005 to inform the public on land use, transportation, and community design issues to ensure sensible growth in this area. 

While its board includes members associated with enviro/conservation groups like Piedmont Environmental Council and Southern Environmental Law Center, Wheeler insists Charlottesville Tomorrow does not take positions beyond "sensible growth." 

"The no-growth label doesn't resonate with me," he says. "Our mission statement acknowledges that we're going to grow and that we want quality growth. If we were no-growth, we'd take positions against developments."

With his blogging, podcasting, and now videotaping, Wheeler is at the forefront of what he calls a new media, and he's hiring some help to keep track of local government. "People are desperate for information," he says.

Because he doesn't have a deadline like a daily newspaper and stays at meetings until the end– when the weighty decisions often get made– Wheeler has scored a few scoops. He was first with Coach Dave Leitao's October surprise: a proposal to the Board of Supervisors that Seminole Trail be renamed Cavalier Way. More recently, he unleashed the news that the Charlottesville Planning Commission discussed limiting conversations with citizens and developers outside meetings.

Before becoming immersed in local issues, Wheeler intended to be an international guy. He majored in foreign affairs at UVA and went to work after college for W. Alton Jones, a private foundation dedicated to environmental and no-nuke issues on a worldwide level. When that split into three separate foundations, Wheeler joined SNL as the tech guy and chief information officer. "You never know what opportunities– and skills– will come your way," he notes.

Wearing his parent-volunteer hat, he segued to PTO president at Murray Elementary and started to track county school issues. The site is now home to 22 different electronic newsletters.

And wearing his activist hat, he was a founder of the Ivy Community Association, which sprang to action when Faulconer Construction decided to open a heavy equipment shop right up the road from Murray.

Now it's an election year, and Wheeler is ready to go door to door. "I love to campaign," he says, and he's hoping someone will jump in to challenge him. "I think it's better if the public has a choice," he says, wearing, of course, his "student-of-Larry-Sabato hat."

Age: 40

Why here? UVA's telescopes brought me here as an undergraduate in 1984.  

What's worst about living here? I have lived here my entire adult life and love it. I guess my worst fear is we won't have quality growth, and I'll be able to answer this question.

Favorite hangout? Small clubs with live acoustic music

Most overrated virtue? A meticulous, weed-free front yard

People would be surprised to know: In college at age 19, I led the ground search and rescue team for the Henson Airlines Flight 1517 crash in Shenandoah National Park. We located the wreckage in the dark and spent the night there until the recovery of the 14 victims could begin the next morning.

What would you change about yourself? I'd relax and spend more time with family and in the wilderness.

Proudest accomplishment? Launching the non-partisan community organization Charlottesville Tomorrow

People find most annoying about you: Details, details, details

Whom do you admire? Close friends Carol Lamb and Michael Mallare, who we lost way too early to cancer. Their courage and spirit is something that will always give me strength.

Favorite book? Among recent reads, The Freedom Writers Diary

Subject that causes you to rant? The General Assembly and the Dillon Rule that limits local government authority

Biggest 21st-century thrill? Citizen media, blogging, and podcasting

Biggest 21st-century creep out? Identity theft and cyber-crimes against children

What do you drive? A 2001 VW Passat station wagon

In your car CD player right now: I've switched over to my iPod. It's probably playing something female and acoustic.

Next journey? Our kids are 14 and 11, and so far we've avoided Disney World. Spring Break 2007– watch out, Orlando!

Most trouble you've ever gotten in? Lost in a swamp, waste deep in water, at night, in Sussex County

Regret: I don't have a pilot's license, yet.

Favorite comfort food: Chocolate

Always in your refrigerator: Leftovers Jean told me to take to work for lunch

Must-see TV: Any lacrosse. And now my kids have me hooked on American Idol. TiVo is amazing.

Favorite cartoon: Dilbert... once you've worked in a large company with cubicles, it's hard to stop reading.

Describe a perfect day. Strong coffee, Sunday papers, playing outdoors with the family

Walter Mitty fantasy: I'm [the Hook editor] for a day, and I get to change the HotSeat questions (eliminating this one and changing a few others!). 

Who'd play you in the movie? I've been teased for looking like Michael J. Fox. I'd prefer Harrison Ford.

Most embarrassing moment? Pretty much any dance in high school

Best advice you ever got? Apply to UVA. (I grew up in Atlanta, and only one other student from my public high school had ever come here.)

Favorite bumper sticker? Brian Wheeler for School Board

Brian Wheeler