The Postal Service Runs Amok: How Not to Close a Post Office
October 22, 2011
In the classic guidebook for lawyers,The Art of Cross-Examination, Francis Wellman advises, “A lawyer should never ask a witness in cross-examination a question unless in the first place the lawyer knows what the answer would be or in the second place didn’t care.” This week lawyers for the Postal Service cross-examined Mark Strong, president of the National League of Postmasters, about his testimony before the Postal Regulatory Commission (PRC) concerning the Retail Access Optimization Initiative (RAOI). (The cross was in addition to written interrogatories submitted to Strong and the League earlier this month.)
If the USPS lawyers knew what Strong’s answers would be, it’s hard to understand why they asked the questions in the first place. They just gave the League an opportunity to offer up some pretty damning evidence about what’s been going on at the public meetings about closing post offices.
In response to questions posed by the Postal Service, the League prepared a “Notice of Additional Material” that was added to the PRC docket on Friday. The material paints a picture of the public meetings that is anything but flattering to the Postal Service, and it cites practices that seem in direct violation of the USPS Discontinuance Guide (Handbook PO-101). Given that the Postal Service was criticized by an earlier PRC Advisory Opinion for similar problems related to closing post offices back in 2010, it’s somewhat surprising that management isn’t working harder to do a better job this time around. But it looks like the PRC’s Advisory Opinion on the RAOI will need to offer yet another round of criticisms.
Handbook PO-101 states, “Be sure to schedule the meeting at a time that encourages customer participation, such as during an evening or weekend.” As widely reported in the media, Strong claimed that public meetings were being held at times difficult or impossible for working people to attend. The Postal Service asked for evidence, so the League produced numerous emails from postmasters listing when meetings had been scheduled. In South Dakota 48 out of 75 meetings were held during the workday; in Montana, 18 of 85 were held prior to 5 p.m. on weekdays; and in Illinois and Missouri, there were at least 70 meetings scheduled during the workday.
PO-101 states that at the public meeting, the “District Manager or MPOO [Manager of Post Office Operations, aka POOM] conducts the Management Presentation and provides responses to customer questions.” In order to make this presentation, it would help if a DM or POOM were actually present at the meeting, but apparently many meetings have taken place with no manager present. Instead, local postmasters have been told to conduct the meeting and in some cases serve as the minute taker as well. In Wyoming and Colorado, for instance, there are at least eight cases where no DM or POOM was present; in Missouri, ten; in Arkansas, four. In Illinois, one POOM apparently told postmasters that he would not be attending any of the town hall meetings, and postmasters have been designated to run them.
PO-101 doesn’t mention this because it probably didn’t occur to the folks writing the manual to prohibit it, but it turns out that in some cases, the Postal Service has combined the meetings for two communities into one. In Colorado, for example, two communities were forced to discuss issues related to their own post office at the same meeting.
PO-101 doesn’t say anything about how long the meeting should be or how long people should be allowed to speak, but apparently some meetings in Iowa and Arkansas have begun with the USPS meeting leader announcing that it would last for exactly one hour, and people have been told that their comments must be limited to two minutes.
PO-101 directs the meeting coordinator to “make notes of customer concerns and responses for inclusion in the official record.” But the League produced messages from postmasters indicating that at many meetings no one took notes for the Postal Service — seven in Arkansas, for example, and at least a couple in Indiana. At some meetings, the manager leading the meeting said that nothing anyone said would go into the record, and the only way to get something into the record was to submit it in writing.
PO-101 states, “Do not argue or raise your voice with customers. Always tell them the truth.” Apparently that’s not always been the case. At a meeting in Iowa, the POOM is said to have gotten “rude, cutting people off, shutting them down.” A veteran expressed concern about the insulin he gets in the mail from the VA, and was told to stay home to get his meds from the carrier. As the local newspaper summed it up, “Representatives from the Postal Service appeared to be almost hostile to the community during the question and answer time.”
PO-101 states, “The Postal Service is precluded as a matter of law from discontinuing a small Post Office solely for operating at a deficit. The operation of a small Post Office at a deficit cannot be used to justify initiation of a discontinuance study unless other permissible circumstances under [section] 212 are present.” But at one meeting, the USPS manager told citizens that there is no law stating that the USPS can’t close a post office only for financial reasons because that law was changed with the new PO-101.
PO-101 states, “It is the policy of the government, as established by law, that the Postal Service provide a maximum degree of effective and regular postal services to rural areas, communities, and small towns where Post Offices are not self- sustaining.” Asked about this legal requirement, that same manager apparently said that “reorganization does not say that about maximum service.”
PO-101 tells the person running the meeting to “make it clear that no final decision has been made.” As widely reported in the media, however, many people attending these meetings feel that the closure decision is a “done deal” and the post office will close no matter what they say or do. Having mentioned this in his testimony, Strong was asked to produce evidence, and that he did:
- At a meeting in Iowa, the POOM started the meeting saying something like, “This is a feasibility study of discontinuance, but face it, folks, it’s discontinuance.”
- At a meeting in Connecticut, the meeting coordinator told people it’s not a done deal but recommended that everyone start using their 911 address in addition to their post office box, and to get their checks printed with the 911 address: “If you start changing your addresses now,” she said, “then when this goes through you are ready.”
- At another meeting, the postmaster got up and stated the closing was a “done deal,” and all of the mail would be coming out of another post office. The POOM at the meeting did not deny this, and apparently that postmaster is now being disciplined for the remark.
- At one meeting, a customer said he had received a letter acknowledging receipt of his questionnaire in which it said, “Since the suspension of service, there has been no indication that the business community has been adversely affected,” and “mail will be forwarded in accordance with postal regulations.” It seems that the patron had received a letter intended for after the post office closed.
- At a meeting in South Dakota, the POOM started the meeting with a slide show on the state of the Postal Service, and then suggested that if the community would go along with the closing of their post office, it would help “save” the Postal Service — so it was part of their civic duty to cooperate.
People have also been given conflicting information about what alternative arrangements would be made if their post office closed. In one community meeting, people were told they could not have a cluster box unit (CBU) because it was too expensive to install, even though it had been mentioned as a possibility in the “proposal to discontinue.” People were also told they would not be permitted to put up mail boxes at their own curbs — they would have to be located at a central location assigned to them. And they were told rural delivery was better because it’s free and they wouldn’t have to pay for a post office box, even though in their town a post office box was already free.
PO-101 provides extensive direction about the preparation of the “proposal to discontinue.” It's supposed to contain detailed information addressing customer concerns from the community meetings and questionnaires, as well data about the distances to other post offices and alternative retail access points, employee salaries and benefits, rent and utility costs, and so on. The League presented several examples where the proposal was filled with factual errors.
If anyone needs more evidence of that, there’s plenty on the PRC’s website in the dockets for appeals to stop closings. Over 130 have been filed since the first of the year, and many complain about errors in the Postal Service’s documentation. They also contain much more evidence for the other points covered in the League’s presentation, like this letter appealing the final determination to close the post office in Lodi, Texas.
“It appears that the USPS has set these closing procedures on autopilot, and there is really nothing anyone can do to stop them,” writes the Lodi appellant. “It amazes me that even with the Constitutional Rights under 39 (U.S.C.) 404 (b), that they are being allowed to run amok over the citizens they are being paid to serve. . . . They don’t actually ‘study’ a post office for closure. They target it for closure and then proceed to process it. There is NO careful consideration made.”
Besides a wealth of information about what’s been going on at community meetings, the League’s “Notice of Additional Material” contains responses to a few other questions posed by the Postal Service attorneys. Again, it’s hard to figure why the questions were asked in the first place.
Strong had testified that closing all 3,650 post offices on the RAOI list would save, as the Postal Service has claimed in numerous news articles, $200 million a year. Strong pointed out that this is 3/10 of one percent of its annual revenue budget, and he added (in a footnote) that “the total net cost of the 10,000 smallest Post Offices—more than one-third of all Post Offices in the United States—is less than seven tenths of one percent (0.7%) of the total costs of the United States Postal Service.”
For some reason, the Postal Service attorneys challenged Strong to produce evidence for this: “Please provide the calculations you used to arrive at this figure, and document the sources of each figure used.”
Well, the PRC was able to provide numbers illustrating exactly what Strong had testified. In 2009, the annual cost for operating CAG K & L post offices (the two smallest types of post office, of which there are over 9,200) was $629.38 million. Replacing these post offices with rural carriers would provide the USPS with a net savings of $535.91 million — 0.75 % of the 2009 expenses of about $71 billion.
A study done by George Mason University for the USPS Office of Inspector General in 2009 found essentially the same thing in its analysis of FY 2007, when those 9,200 CAG K&L post offices cost about $664 million to operate and, if closed, would yield a net savings of $586 million — 0.73% of the 2007 operating expenses of $80 billion. It’s anybody’s guess why the Postal Service would ask the League to provide data that’s readily available and that clearly substantiates Strong’s testimony.
Along similar lines, Strong was questioned about his comment that “the primary purpose of the RAO Initiative is to reduce costs.” Attorneys for the Postal Service referred Strong to the USPS “Request” for an Advisory Opinion, where there are supposedly “a number of different goals for the RAOI.” The Request does mention several “goals” — like “improve efficiency and enhance customer convenience in the provision of retail services through the use of alternate access” — but it’s ludicrous to think that closing post offices will improve customer convenience. The main goal of the RAOI is obviously, as the Request puts it, “to evaluate certain categories of facilities within the postal retail network to determine whether their numbers can be reduced” and thereby to “capture cost savings.”
Anyway, it wasn’t hard for the League to produce evidence for Strong’s observation that cost saving was the goal — like a USPS press release about the closing initiative that included, as “Background,” statistics about how much volumes and revenue have declined, “creating enormous financial pressures on the Postal Service.” The League also produced slides that had been presented to Congressional staff in April of 2011 illustrating the same theme. (If someone in L’Enfant Plaza knows of a reason to close thousands of post offices besides saving money, please get in touch with Save the Post Office by clicking on the ‘contact’ link at the top of the page.)
Finally, Strong was asked to produce evidence for his comment about how postmasters were being held to a “loyalty” oath that prevented them from informing their communities about what is happening. The League produced a memo from a USPS executive dated Oct. 3, 2011, addressed to postmasters and station managers, stating that “employees in active status must not engage in campaigns for or against changes in mail service.” A similar letter reminded postmasters, plant managers, and station and branch managers about the policy for handling media inquiries — basically, don’t talk to the media without clearance. A letter from one Manager of Post Office Operations reminded his “team” that with the “changes taking place with the AMP and PO Closures Study, everyone needs to be aware of the guidelines below” — the relevant passages on “loyalty” and “obedience to orders” in the “Postal Service Standards of Conduct.”
You can add to these examples of efforts to silence postal employees the new policy on social media. This week the Postal Service revised its Administrative Support Manual by adding a Social Media Policy concerning blogs, Facebook, YouTube, etc. It basically tells postal workers not to “speak for” the Postal Service, not to comment anonymously, and not to say anything about postal business without management consent. “Everything you publish,” says the Manual, “will reflect on the Postal Service’s brand and reputation.”
What does all this mean? No one who works for the Postal Service can criticize or object to what management is doing because that might tarnish the USPS “brand and reputation”? Some postmasters have served their community for decades, and they’ve formed deep, important relationships with their customers. Now, with the future of the post office in jeopardy, they’re supposed to keep quiet and stay out of it? Will postmasters who try to help communities save their post office be charged with mutiny? How’s that going to help protect the USPS “brand and reputation”?
UPDATE: For the USPS response to some of what's discussed above, see James Boldt's "Surrebuttal Testimony," filed Monday, Oct. 24, 2011.