Postal politics gets ugly: The Post attacks the PRC Chair

February 6, 2012

There’s a lot at stake in the battle over postal reform — billions of dollars of corporate profits, the power of unions, the very existence of post offices — so one can’t be surprised that the politics got a little rough this week.  The Washington Post has just run a piece attacking Ruth Goldway, Chairman of the Postal Regulator Commission, accusing her of spending too much time and money on travel.  The hatchet job by Ed O’Keefe makes a mountain out of a molehill, and one has to wonder why it was ever written or published — and who was really behind it.

The slant of the article is clear right in the title: “Postal regulatory chairman’s $70,000 in travel comes under scrutiny.”  That makes it sound like someone else is scrutinizing Goldway and O’Keefe is just reporting on it, but as it turns out, he’s the one who has initiated the whole thing. 

“Days before the U.S. Postal Service announced record-setting losses in September," the article begins, "the nation’s top postal regulator traveled to Scotland for meetings with European envelope manufacturers.” 

O’Keefe would have us visualize the PRC’s chairman out gallivanting around Europe, insensitive to or unaware of the fact that the Postal Service was losing billions.  She should have been in her office doing her job regulating the Postal Service, suggests O’Keefe, instead of worrying about European envelopes.

The article, along with an accompanying interview with Chairman Goldway, paints a picture of a government official globetrotting on the taxpayer’s dime, someone who’s out of the office more than in it.  0'Keefe even had someone count up all the days Goldway was on the road, and he lists her destinations as if she were doing “Around the World in 80 Days.” 

O’Keefe is making a big deal out of nothing.  There’s nothing unusual about Goldway’s travel expenses.  O’Keefe says Goldway has spent $70,000 since she became the PRC chair in August 2009 (after serving as a Commissioner since 1998).  That’s two and a half years ago, so it comes to about $28,000 a year. 

That may seem like a lot to us average Americans, but for a senior government official with national and international responsibilities, it’s not very much.  As O’Keefe’s own investigation revealed, Goldway’s predecessor as chair of the PRC, Dan Blair, spent $58,788 on travel during his two-and-a-half-year tenure — about $23,500 a year, just a few thousand less than Goldway — and there was a lot less going on in postal world back then. 

Goldway’s travel expenses are also in the same ballpark as other high-ranking officials in the postal system.  According to an OIG audit, the nine members of the USPS Board of Governors incurred $163,000 in travel and miscellaneous expenses in fiscal year 2011.  The report doesn’t break it down per person or separate travel from miscellaneous expenses, but if that $163,000 includes the Postmaster General and the Deputy PMG, it comes to over $18,000 per Board member, and if it doesn’t include them, the remaining seven Board members averaged over $23,000 per person in travel and miscellaneous expenses.

Another OIG audit on “Officers’ Travel and Representation Expenses for Fiscal Year 2011” says that the travel and representation expenses for USPS officers totaled about $700,000.  The USPS website has a page of “officers” that lists some 35 of them.  That would come to about $20,000 per officer.

Those USPS executives, by the way, earn a very nice salary, too.  While the Postal Service was wracking up its huge deficit in 2010, the top 38 USPS officials earned more than cabinet secretaries.  (The Post has been silent on that story.) 

The Postmaster General likes to get around himself.  In December, for example, just a few days after the Postal Service had announced plans to close half the country’s processing plants, put 35,000 postal employees out of work, and slow down first-class mail by a day or more, the Postmaster General was off for the COP17 climate conference in Durban, South Africa, where, according to a USPS press release, he “heralded the U.S. Postal Service’s sustainability successes, making the business case to go green.”  (The irony of the PMG discussing the environment is explored in this article.)

Not only are Goldway’s travel expenses comparable to those of her predecessor and other postal executives, the PRC’s travel budget, as Goldway told the Post, represents just one percent of the agency’s total budget. 

Another disturbing thing about the Post article is the way O’Keefe solicited reaction to his big scoop.  Whom did he call for a quote?  Darrell Issa and Thomas Carper. 

Issa is identified in the article as a congressman who “tracks postal issues.”  No mention of the fact that Issa is spearheading legislation in the House that would dismantle the Postal Service by creating a commission to close post offices and plants and basically make the PRC irrelevant.  He’s quoted as saying that Goldway’s travel schedule was troubling.  “When organizations are struggling,” said Issa, “good leaders often make a pointed effort of curbing their own expenses as an example.”

That’s rich.  According to the Watchdog Institute, Issa’s staff has close ties to the billionaire Koch brothers, whose Cato institute advocates postal privatization, and Issa has received generous campaign contributions from the brothers as well.  Issa is also the subject of an ethics complaint issued by American Family Voices with the Office of Congressional Ethics, alleging that he has repeatedly used his public office for personal financial gain.  (See Wikipedia for more.)

The Post might have asked Issa — the richest man in Congress — how he’s  been curbing his own expenses these days.  Back in 2006, issa was described as “the best-traveled member of San Diego County's congressional delegation.”  Issa ranked 24th among all House members on a list of taxpayer-paid travel.  

What’s to hide? The Postal Service turns over some closing lists

February 4, 2012

Getting closing lists out of the Postal Service is like, well, pulling teeth.  Over the past several months, hundreds of post offices have closed, gone into emergency suspension, or received a Final Determination notice indicating they’ll close in 60 days.  But try to find a list of all of these post offices on the USPS website.  One gets the impression that the Postal Service would prefer that the public not have access to this data. 

It’s not as if the information is really secret.  Every community that sees its post office close or that gets a Final Determination knows about it, and there’s usually at least one local news article when a post office closes.  But in a very real sense, most closures take place below radar, and it’s difficult to see what’s happening at a national level.  In the UK, where they’ve closed over 7,000 post offices, something similar has gone on.  They call it “the secret closure programme.”

To make things more transparent, Save the Post Office has been tracking the closings, but it’s been difficult.  The Postal Service turned down a request made under the Freedom of Information Act for materials about the closings.  (Actually, it didn’t turn down the request outright – it just said that the information would cost $650, plus photocopying.)  Compiling data from a variety of sources like news reports is time consuming and prone to error.  The USPS website itself has incorrect information, and important pages are not updated often enough.

Yesterday, we had some good news in the list department.  In response to a request from the Chairman of the Postal Regulatory Commission (PRC), the Postal Service submitted several lists containing information about post office closings and suspensions.  Chairman Ruth Goldway made the information request (see #28) a couple of weeks ago as part of the information gathering required for the PRC’s annual compliance report.

The lists can be accessed in an Excel document (with five sheets) on the PRC website here, and there’s a description of the lists he re.  The lists are readily available on the Save the Post Office website as well (links below).  (Note that the new lists have several errors and anomalies, some of which have already been identified by Going Postal.)

Goldway has requested seven lists.  Five were submitted yesterday, and two more are forthcoming.  Below are links to each list, along with a few comments (not provided by the Postal Service):

a. Post Offices Closed After 1/1/2011: This list contains 430 post offices that closed during 2011. 

That’s considerably more than the 280 USPS VP Dean Granholm indicated had closed as of October 13, and somewhat shy of the 500 that Postmaster General Donahoe said had closed as of mid-November.  It’s also many more than Save the Post Office was able to identify as of just a few weeks ago, when we published a list of 320

b. Post Offices Under Suspension as of 1/1/2012: This list contains 227 post offices — some suspended as recently as June 2011, and others as far back as 1986 — which were still suspended as of the first of the year.  

The list does not indicate the reason for the suspension, but it certainly illustrates how suspensions can go on forever, which amounts to a de facto discontinuance, without due process.  Most of these post offices were suspended during 2008 to 2010.  In March of 2011, the Postal Service gave the PRC a much longer list of about 330 post offices that remained under suspension.  Many of those have apparently re-opened or closed permanently after a formal discontinuance process.  Chairman Goldway mentioned at a meeting of the PRC in January that about 200 suspended offices had closed or were being studied for closure.

c. Post offices Suspended after 1/1/2011: This list contains 211 post offices that were suspended during 2011, as well as two that were suspended in early 2012. 

Like list (b), it does not indicate the reason for suspension, nor does it say what the current status of these post offices are.  A search of news articles about these suspensions suggests that many, if not most, were due to weather-related problems, like Hurricane Irene, the flooding in the Midwest, tornados, and so on, and most of them eventually re-opened.  In some cases, however, the Postal Service chose not to find a new location, and essentially used the natural catastrophe as an opportunity to suspend and subsequently close the post office.  The post office in Reading, Kansas, for example, was destroyed by a tornado in May, and three months later, the town learned the Postal Service was studying the post office for permanent closure.

Where's the emergency? Suspended post offices in 2011 & a list of leases ending soon

February 2, 2012

There’s a moratorium on closing post offices until May 15, but it doesn’t apply to “emergency suspensions,” as we learned at a meeting of the Postal Regulatory Commission earlier this week. That means any post office with a lease expiring soon is in danger, and there are 1,400 of them with leases that end during the moratorium.  A list is here.

An emergency suspension occurs when the Postal Service temporarily closes a post office — often with little or no notice to the community — for emergencies like the postmaster gets sick and there’s no replacement available, or the building is unsafe due to heavy snowfall or a tornado. 

But sometimes the emergency doesn’t seem like an “emergency” at all — it’s just a dispute over a lease renewal.  The Postal Service knows long in advance when a lease will expire, so there should be plenty of time to work out a new agreement or find a new location.  It’s rarely an emergency situation, but sometimes the Postal Service turns it into one.  And sometimes a “temporary” suspension can go on for years. 

The Postal Service often manufactures an emergency by making demands on the property owner that are just too hard to swallow — like insisting on a rent reduction or an early-out clause that gives the Postal Service the right to terminate the lease with 90-days’ notice, or like telling the owner to take over responsibility for maintenance work that the Postal Service had been doing.  When the owner and Postal Service can’t come to an agreement, the Postal Service declares an “emergency suspension” and the post office closes.

These days, with the Postal Service looking for any reason it can find to close facilities, a post office with a lease expiring is in imminent danger of an emergency suspension.  Some 4,500 post offices have leases that expire in 2012, and about 1,400 of them have leases that expire between January 1 and May 15, 2012, the day the moratorium ends. 

The issue of emergency suspensions came up this week at a meeting of the Postal Regulatory Commission, which has an open docket on an investigation into the practice of suspending post offices over lease issues.  That investigation began a couple of years ago, but it looks as if it stalled out because of the PRC’s other pressing business — Advisory Opinions, appeals cases, compliance reports, and all the rest.  Or perhaps because the Commissioners believe the abuses have ended.

At the meeting on Wednesday, PRC Chairman Ruth Goldway made the following comments during a discussion of the scope of the moratorium on closings: “Just for clarification, there have been a couple of small articles I’ve read recently on post office suspensions involving leases that were expired. . . .  If a post office is suspended,” she asked the PRC’s General Counsel, “do citizens have a right to appeal to us?” 

The PRC attorney said no, the statute applies only to closures, and he reminded the Chairman of “concern that suspensions were being maintained for an inordinately long period of time which amounted to a de facto closing, and we’ve had review work done in that area, but when a suspension occurs just because the lease expires, customers cannot appeal that action to us.” 

Goldway then commented, “So there are some post offices that are closing even within this moratorium, but to the best of my knowledge they are ones that involve issues where the Postal Service has been in negotiations and there are just disputes between the landlord and the Postal Service — legitimate disputes about lease terms — and as a result on occasion a post office does close.  But they are no longer using suspensions as a de facto cover for post office closings, as they admitted in some ways were the case because they admitted to us that there was a backlog of 400 or so suspended post offices that they were officially closing in their records that we haven’t received appeals on.  They’ve been at least more honest and straightforward and systematic about reporting their decisions on post office closings, so that’s useful. (Comments at about 32 minutes into the podcast).

The Chairman’s comments suggest that concern over the emergency suspensions has diminished because the Postal Service has become more “honest and straightforward.”  There’s reason to believe, however, that the Postal Service is continuing to manufacture emergencies and to close post offices without due process.  Several post offices closed in 2011 over dubious lease issues, and it looks like some will be suspended during the moratorium as well. 

 

Suspensions in 2011

About thirty post offices have been suspended since the beginning of 2011, and at least eleven of them were over lease problems. [CORRECTION; On Feb. 3, 2012, the Postal Service gave the PRC a list of post offices suspended since Jan. 1, 2011, and it contains 213 post offices.  Most of them involved floods and storms and were subsequently reopened.  Here’s the list of the suspended post offices,]

Here are a few details about some of those that were suspended because of lease issues:

The post office in Mineral Ridge, Ohio was suspended on March 25, 2011, over a lease dispute.  According to a local news report, the Postal Service says it tried to “reach out” to the owner in July 2009, but didn’t get a response until January 2010; the landlord rejected that offer, says the Postal Service, and didn’t make a counteroffer until October.   The owner says different.  He says, "We were never in negotiations.”  He sent the Postal Service a lease with a rent increase for the cost of things the postmaster wanted fixed, but he never heard back.  He emailed the Postal Service to complain: “You are publicly saying you’re trying to negotiate.”  He got an email back saying “they are not willing” to negotiate.

The post office in Johnsonburg, New Jersey, closed in March when the landlord terminated its lease.  No further details are available about why.  The post office has been in this location for a hundred years.

The post office in Arlington, Iowa, closed in April over a lease dispute — on five days’ notice.  According to an article in the Des Moines Register by Kyle Munson (who’s been following the closings in Iowa carefully), “The mayor and the lessor allege that the Postal Service manufactured the lease crisis to set up quicker closure of an office served by a full-fledged postmaster. The Postal Service denies this.”

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