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Girl Scouts' misfortune cookies

Claremont's mayor told a troop it had to relocate. Bad move.

July 19, 2008|David Pierson | Times Staff Writer

With a sigh, Claremont Mayor Ellen Taylor explained how she became the "Claremont Cookie Monster."

It happened during a chance encounter in March outside her husband's law office in the heart of the quaint college town.

She noticed that Girl Scouts had set up a cookie sale on the street corner outside her office. Taylor approached a troop leader and asked if they had permission to set up.

The troop leader, Maia West, said she did.

West said Taylor told her she was disrupting Taylor's business. Taylor says she was simply worried that the girls could get hurt next to such a busy intersection.

The confrontation ended with Taylor calling the police and the half-dozen 8- to 10-year-old Girl Scouts packing up their cookies.

"We were just yelling 'Girl Scout cookies!' and the lady comes out and tells us to stop it because it's ruining her business and she can't work," said West's 10-year-old daughter, Amanda. "The lady told us to go, so we had to leave."

A few of the Scouts jeered at Taylor as they left. By the time the police arrived, everyone was gone.

Taylor says she didn't think twice about the encounter. She thought she was doing the right thing.

But within days, the confrontation between the mayor and the Girl Scouts was the talk of Claremont.

It would only get worse in the coming months, leading to accusations that the city was trying to punish the Girl Scouts with a new law and nasty name-calling directed at Taylor.

Taylor is still trying to put what she calls the "Girl Scout cookie saga" behind her.

City officials are hoping the community can move on.

"What happened with the Girl Scouts," said City Manager Jeffrey C. Parker, "got blown way out of proportion."

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Picked up by blog

After packing up and leaving the sidewalk in front of the law office, West and her troop were steaming.

"It was such a negative experience," said West, who has lived just outside Claremont for nine years. "Here we are trying to empower these young girls to be entrepreneurs, and this woman shuts them down."

A few days later, West made what would be a fateful decision: She sent an e-mail chronicling the incident to the Claremont Insider, a popular blog in town known for gossipy items and sharp jabs at local politicians.

It was an anonymous editor of the Claremont Insider who named Taylor the "Claremont Cookie Monster" in a series of biting posts.

Readers responded with their own comments, the vast majority siding with the Girl Scouts.

On the blog, the mayor became known as "Queen Ellen," "Wrong-Way Ellen," "Tough Cookie Taylor" and "Her Honorable Majesty."

It wasn't long before the Claremont Courier picked up on the story, publishing readers' letters ridiculing Taylor for taking on the Girl Scouts.

"I actually felt sorry for her after a while," West said.

Then came the issue of the ordinance.

The Claremont City Council proposed rules that would force solicitors to obtain a permit and undergo a background check before hitting the streets.

The ordinance specifically cited Girl Scouts, among others, as nonprofit organizations that would need to apply for a permit if they go door-to-door.

West learned about the ordinance from her cousin. "She said, 'You really did it now,' " West said.

In fact, the city had been talking about the solicitation rules for months. The ordinance updated a 1982 city law left inactive after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down similar laws in 2002.

Under the new law, Girl Scouts would need a permit to go door-to-door but would be exempt from fingerprinting and criminal background checks. That scrutiny is reserved for commercial solicitors, not charities.

The ordinance added fuel to the Girl Scout debate -- with some questioning whether the incident played a role. Taylor again took a drubbing.

"I'm not of the opinion the ordinance has anything to do with the incident with the Girl Scouts," added Sandra E. Silva, chief executive officer of the Girl Scout Spanish Trails Council, which serves Claremont.

"Of course it appears to the community, and I'm sure to many Girl Scout volunteers in Claremont," that it did, she said.

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Mayor apologizes

The nastiness of the cookie debate shocked many of Taylor's friends and supporters.

Taylor has been a fixture in Claremont for nearly three decades.

"She has always been an advocate of empowering women, and the Girl Scouts are an organization that she values strongly," Councilman Sam Pedroza said. Taylor said she tried to set the record straight. She spoke to one of the troop leaders who had set up a stand in front of her husband's law office, apologizing for stopping their sales that day.

Taylor addressed the controversy at a City Council meeting, explaining that she wanted to settle the "thorny issue that has played out in the press."

"For the past 20 years, my office has been at the corner of 2nd and Indian Hill. And over the years I have seen more accidents there than I wish to count," she said. She said she could understand if her actions were taken the wrong way.

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