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On Deadline blog: Ellen Fletcher's lesson for all politicians -- local or not

Original post made by Jay Thorwaldson on Nov 27, 2012

Before the late Ellen Fletcher pedals off to fade into history and anecdote there's a lesson she provided that politicians -- local or national and in between -- might take to heart.

Fletcher, who served on the Palo Alto City Council in the late 1970s and early 1980s, died Nov. 7 after battling lung cancer. Many persons have shared anecdotes and perceptions of her contributions to the community, to go along with a long list of community awards below the Weekly story on her death (available at [Web Link www.PaloAltoOnline.com]).

But she will be remembered for more than being a dedicated advocate of using bicycles as a serious form of transportation, as she learned as a child in London after she escaped the Nazi scourge in Germany and before she moved to America.

The lesson Fletcher left behind is simple: Be honest, be real, be yourself.

I personally observed this aspect of Fletcher when I was a reporter for the erstwhile Palo Alto Times, covering Palo Alto city government and politics. After some time working in a support role of other City Council candidates and community issues, Fletcher decided to run -- or pedal -- for council herself.

Part of my beat was to check in with the Police Department every morning, which I did in person most mornings. But one morning I was greeted by chortles from several officers, one of whom informed me that they had ticketed Fletcher for running through a stop sign on her bike, in south Palo Alto. Officers at the time were not known for their advocacy of bicycling.

My next task, I knew, was to call Fletcher, whom I had just met shortly before, and ask her about her violating the stop-sign law. Having dealt with scores of local politicians by that time, I anticipated a negative response from Fletcher.

I expected a response that might include one or more of the following:

1) Questioning or angrily challenging whether getting the ticket is newsworthy.

2) Asking something like, "Do you have to write about that?"

3) Arguing that many other bicyclists ignore stop signs when no cars are approaching.

4) Threatening to pull campaign ads from the paper if a story is run.

So, bolstered against some type of resistance, I called Fletcher. She greeted me cheerfully. I explained why I was calling.

Yes, she responded with no pause, adding that she ran the stop sign and got a ticket, stating only that it was clear to her that no cars were coming from the side streets -- but that she didn't see the police car behind her.

Pleasantly surprised at her candor and openness, I decided to push my luck: I asked how she'd feel about taking her bike back to the stop sign so we could take a picture of her and the sign.

Sure, she said, asking when she should be there. The Times' city editor was as surprised as I was when I told him about her reaction.

The resulting photo showed her straddling her bike looking back at the camera with the stop sign in the background. On a wire basket behind the bike seat were affixed "bumper strips" promoting her campaign.

I'm not sure whether the publicity (with photo) helped or hurt her campaign, but she pedaled easily into office. Once on the council, she worked hard to overcome her initial reputation as a one-issue candidate. She did her homework on a wide range of issues, surprising many with her grasp of details, while still leaning strongly toward environmental positions and a slower-growth scenario for the community and region.

Promoting bicycling remained a key part of her life, publicly and personally -- and well after she was diagnosed with lung cancer as she continued cycling around town insofar as she was able.

To me her real legacy is her candor, honesty and lack of concern about how she might be perceived by voters and citizens. She is not alone among local and other politicians who are up-front and "what you see is what you get." And there are many good public officials who also are sensitive to their reputations and public perception.

But Fletcher's unwavering consistency and openness stand out vividly as both a personal style and an example for future candidates and public officials, whether or not they pedal to meetings.

*Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be e-mailed at jthorwaldson@paweekly.com with a copy to jaythor@well.com. He writes regular print columns for the Weekly and blogs at www.PaloAltoOnline.com (below Town Square).*

Comments (3)

Posted by Last of the Baby Boomers, a resident of Community Center
on Nov 29, 2012 at 8:19 am

Thank you Jay for taking the time to write this and remind us what is best in people and what we should hope to aspire to. You have made this day better for this post.


Posted by Fred Balin, a resident of College Terrace
on Nov 29, 2012 at 10:12 pm

Within one of several large manilla envelopes marked "Scrapbook," and which will find ultimate residence at the Palo Alto History Museum, resides a file labeled "Stop Signs."

In it, is Jay Thorwaldson's September 1, 1978 front-page article in The Palo Alto Times. Dominating the broadsheet, is the staged photo of Ellen Fletcher on bike with stop sign visible behind her. Below, the caption writer had some fun: "Councilwoman Ellen Fletcher of Palo Alto today practiced stopping at the Ross Road - Clara Drive intersection where she got a ticket Thursday for running a stop sign."

Thorwaldson's article is more muted and nuanced, evoking both sympathy ("It was my first ticket of any kind ever.") and the spirit of a trailblazer on the move ("If you use a bicycle for transportation, you have to make good time. Otherwise, it's not a viable mode of transportation.")

The latter quote appears to have set off fellow Times writer Alexander Bodi who turns up the heat in his column three days later entitled: "Comeuppance Due: A pedallng scofflaw."

Bodi writes: "A car isn't a viable means of transportation, either, if you have to stop all the time. In fact, on many through streets bicyclist get ahead of cars because the cars stop for stop signs and red lights even when there's no opposing traffic. Bicyclists usually go through. So that according to Mrs. Fletcher, makes cycling 'viable.' Hah."

A lively series of letters is also included in the file. They include ones from:

- Daniel F. O'Connell of the Santa Clara Valley Bicycle Association who writes to the Times: "Orchids to Ellen for promoting (sometimes at great embarrassment) the cause of all non-automotive commuting; onions to the "Times" for making her front-page news, as if she were a Patty Hearst."

- William Seethaler of Homer Avenue, who, at the end of a long facetious rant on the council woman's priorities closes to the Times with: "Under Mrs. Fletcher's leadership, Palo Alto can again bask in national admiration similar to that which we received by attempting to eliminate barber poles. Bicycle supremacy is a battle we dare not lose, society's future, and that of unborn generations, hangs on it."

- Dave Forsythe of Webster Street, whose brief handwritten missive to the bicyclist/offender offers practical advice: "Dear Ellen: I saw your picture in the paper last night, and felt moved to suggest a rear view mirror on your bike. I have had one mounted on my left handlebar for over a year now and find it extremely helpful both for promoting safety and for avoiding unseen hazards from the rear -- of various kinds."

And finally there is Ellen Fletcher's letter to the editor in response to Bodi column: "The point I tried to make in the Times article was that when bicyclists want to go from one end of town to the other, they must use streets that have stop signs on every other block. Motorists do not have to use these roads, except for the short trip to reach a faster road, such as Alma Street or Bayshore Freeway, routes which are not viable alternatives for bicyclists.

"On the other hand, a bicycle "throughway" or "boulevard," as called for in Palo Alto's Comprehensive Plan, would provide a more equitable alternative. On a bicycle boulevard the through bicyclist would be protected by stop signs controlling cross traffic, and residents along the street would be protected from automobile traffic by periodic barriers. Bicyclists might then be more willing to stop at the few stop signs along the route to the bicycle boulevard, on which a reasonable speed could be attained and maintained."


Posted by Tim Oey, a resident of another community
on Nov 30, 2012 at 9:30 pm

Jay, thanks for the excellent article about Ellen Fletcher. What you describe about Ellen is what I most admired about Ellen -- honest, real, and herself. She is one of the best role models I can think of for politicians and citizens.

Sincerely,
Tim Oey
Sunnyvale, CA


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