BY MARK JAMISON
The Postal Regulatory Commission recently dismissed two appeals on post office closings — Freistatt, Missouri, and the Franklin Station in Somerset County, New Jersey. Both appeals were dismissed because they were filed late – in both cases, less than a week after the deadline.
There’s no question that the PRC has rules of procedure that it must abide by, but it frequently grants extensions to deadlines, more often than not to the Postal Service. The PRC’s rules of procedures and the regulations that govern post office closings can be tough to sort through, especially for the average citizen who might not be familiar with bureaucratic and legal language.
For its part the Postal Service doesn’t make it easy on folks who wish to appeal the closing of a post office. If the post office is a station or branch, the final determination doesn’t even mention that the community has a right to appeal to the PRC. That’s because the Postal Service believes that only independent post offices are permitted to appeal, even though the Commission regularly hears appeal on stations and branches.
There are other problems with the discontinuance notices. In Freistatt, because the post office had been suspended, two discontinuance notices were posted in post offices several miles away, and a third was taped to the back of a cluster box unit that replaced the post office. In some cases the Postal Service has failed to produce a complete administrative record documenting the discontinuance process; in a few cases, there was more than one version of the discontinuance notice, and they contained conflicting information.
The appeals process could be made fairer for communities if there were a few simple changes in the discontinuance procedures that the Postal Service follows and in the process that the PRC uses to review appeals.
First, in addition to posting a final determination in the lobby of the post office, the Postal Service should be required to mail a copy, along with a clear statement of appeal rights, to the appropriate local governing body, whether it be the village, town, or county. This should be done via certified mail.
In addition to notifying the local governmental body, the Postal Service should be required to post a legal notice in the local newspaper of record stating the effective date of the determination, the latest date an appeal may be filed, how and where the appeal should be filed, and an indication of where the complete final determination is available for viewing. A version of this notification should also be sent to every customer served by the post office, just in case they don’t see the copy posted in the lobby.
These changes in the notification process would not be excessive or difficult. Local and state governments regularly file notices of this nature regarding meetings, zoning changes, and other actions initiated by government. This is a basic provision of most state “sunshine” laws.
As for the deadline for appeals, the period in which to file an appeal should be judged to start either by the date of the printed notice in the paper or by the date of receipt of the certified mail sent to the local governing authority. The PRC should also receive a copy of the final determination along with information indicating the local government with jurisdiction. It would also be a good idea if the PRC notified the local government about the appeals process, just to make sure that it’s clear.
The PRC should also modify its procedures. Currently the PRC assigns a Public Representative to each docket to represent “the interests of the general public.” That can be interpreted broadly or narrowly, but, as the PRC website explains, the Public Representative “represents the general public as a whole,” and the PR is not a legal advisor to the public or to those filing appeals. In fact, in some instances, the PR has determined that the public interest means endorsing the Postal Service’s decision to close the post office.
Despite well-intended efforts, the PRC’s document filing and formatting procedures are not particularly easy or transparent for the layperson unfamiliar with legal process. The system can be difficult to navigate, and in most cases small communities may not have ready access to competent assistance. Communities and individuals should also not be burdened by the need to pay legal counsel to represent them before the PRC. The Postal Service has legions of attorneys on staff and could easily drive up costs to untenable levels for an unsophisticated appellant.
For each appeal, the PRC should assign an administrative assistant who would be responsible for assisting appellants in post office closure appeals in preparing documents and ensuring that filing requirements and timelines are well understood.
None of these proposals are particularly time consuming or expensive, but they would go a long way towards leveling the playing field. The loss of a community’s post office can be devastating both economically and socially. The Postal Service has been less than transparent in following discontinuance guidelines. Often the Postal Service relies on a dated discontinuance study in making a final determination. Far too often administrative records are incomplete or incorrect.
Requiring some basic and simple procedures regarding notice and offering appellants minimal assistance in navigating the appeal system is a reasonable and responsible approach to ensure that closures are properly vetted.
[Mr. Jamison is a retired postmaster and a regular contributor to Save the Post Office; his articles are archived here. He can be reached at [email protected]]
(Photo credit: Post office meeting in Freistatt, MO)