Newly-elected Vice Mayor Joanne Wile lives with her partner Nancy, four dogs and 16 birds in a one-story house in Albany. 62-year-old Wile was a social worker for decades. She also sees herself as an environmentalist, a community activist and a lesbian who is ready to “battle any form of discrimination”.
The dogs in the house were adopted from animal shelters. They nestled up to Wile on the living room sofa as I interviewed her. 10 colorful parakeets and 4 cockatiels chirped in a floor-model cage a few feet away. A conure stood defensive of his perch in the kitchen.
A book titled The Green Collar Economy rested on a table. Its author Van Jones, an Oakland activist, wrote about his ideas of how to solve the nation’s two big problems, poverty and environmental crisis, with a single remedy — creating green jobs. Wile has been reading the book recently, and said she is trying to figure out ways to put the ideas into practice in Albany. However, green jobs don’t seem to be easily created, except for training recent high school graduates in installing solar panels.
Wile was introduced another new idea by a member of the newly-formed Sustainability Committee — to build a wind power mill at the Albany waterfront. But the project seems to be too complicated technically and financially to be feasible, and land use issues there have been at the center of a bitter contention in the community for years.
“It’s a new area for me. I need to get myself educated, ” Wile said.
Wile has tried quite a number of things to create a “green economy” for Albany in the past two years as a Councilmember. She said she had tried to get a company to produce electric cars in town, but it didn’t work out because there are no large land lots available.
“I haven’t given up, “she said. “But that’s a problem for us. “
Wile had proposed to build an energy-efficient hotel at the waterfront, on which the Golden Gate Fields racetrack sits, when she was running for the Council in 2006. She was inspired by a magazine article introducing a new type of “green hotel” in Canada, and thought it would be good for Albany as well. Besides the fact that it’s green, it could also generate a handsome amount of revenue for the city. But now she is giving the idea up.
“My idea is outdated now, ” she said. “Hotel occupancy is down. I don’t know it could generate revenue for the city. I will let the Fern Tiger process proceed. “
Fern Tiger is a consultant hired by the city to work out a rough plan for the land on the waterfront. Despite of lingering bitter feelings, most residents have now agreed that the consultant is working effectively in engaging residents and bringing about a common vision for the land.
Wile said she would just wait and see what would emerge from the consultant’s work, instead of coming up with new ideas herself.
She has somewhat shifted her attention to work on economic issues, especially on how to help small business owners in the city to survive the chilling recession. She has talked with business owners on their concerns, together with Peggy Thomsen, a member of the City Council whose opinions differ from hers on many issues.
“We are trying to do whatever we can to help people survive, ” Wile said.
The city has recently given $7,000 in subsidy to local businesses for holiday decorations. No other detailed plans have been devised yet. Two economic consultants have been hired a few months ago to work out further strategies. It’s not clear how much resources the city might allocate to help small businesses, at a time when its own budget is facing serious challenges.
Wile was elected as Vice Mayor of Albany at a meeting last week by a 3-2 vote. She voted for herself and got the votes of Councilmember Robert Lieber and Marge Atkinson, who stood on similar grounds with her on waterfront issues. Some opponents and residents have accused the three of voting in a partisan way and ignoring different opinions.
“When people have similar opinions, they will vote along similar lines, ” Wile said. “We are in a democracy, and we are humans who have different opinions. It is alright as long as we focus on issues and stay away from personal attacks.”
Wile was raised in San Diago and settled down in the Bay Area after graduating from UC-Berkeley in the 1960s. She lived in Oakland and ran public programs to help people with mental illnesses in San Francisco for three decades, before she moved to Albany with her partner Nancy seven years ago.
Wile said they had never had unpleasant experience living in the town as a homosexual couple. She recalled a neighbor presented a trout he caught himself to welcome them.
“People just treat us as neighbors,” she said. “We live like other families do. We don’t have children. We have animals.”
The dogs had fallen sound asleep on the sofa by the time we finished the interview. A parrot named Carman was skipping on his toy ladder on a kitchen table. Two parakeets in the aviary were feeding each other. Half a dozen bean seedlings were absorbing sunshine in a raised bed in the backyard.
Nancy was leaving the house to do some errands. She and Wile talked briefly about who would mail a letter. A while later, Wile put a leash on the youngest dog, Meimei, to take her out for a walk. The other dogs wanted to get out as well. They rushed out the front door and ran to the sidewalk before their owner. Wile herded them back into the house.
In her light blue sweater, dark blue pants dotted with dog hair, and a pair of sneaker tainted with garden soil, Wile walked past neighbours’ houses and splendid maple trees, with Meimei trotting alongside wagging her tail.
Article and photos by Linda (Linjun) Fan.