BY CHUCK ZLATKIN
The federal regulations on relocating post offices don’t put a lot of demands on the Postal Service — a public hearing, a short comment period, a week’s notice before the meeting, and not much more. In many cases, the Postal Service follows the letter of the law while completely disregarding the spirit, which is simply to give communities an opportunity to participate in the decision-making process. What happened in Harlem this week is a prefect example.
A few days ago, the Postal Service posted an undated notice at the College Station post office in Harlem saying that it would give a presentation about a proposal to relocate retail services to a “yet-to-be-determined new location within the same ZIP code area.” The notice was posted in an area of the post office where you would be unlikely to see it unless you went looking for it. The Postal Service is also supposed to send a news release to the local media, but there’s nothing about the meeting in the news.
The presentation was scheduled for Thursday evening, December 12, at a meeting of the Economic Development Committee of Manhattan Community Board 10, which represents Central Harlem. This is a regularly scheduled meeting of a committee, not the entire 50-member Community Board, and while it’s open to the public, not many usually attend. The room where it’s held has about twenty seats.
As one can see from the agenda for Thursday’s EDC meeting, the future of the historic College Station post office would have been sandwiched in between license applications and renewals for a pizza place, a coffee cafe, a lounge, and a taqueria.
The APWU in New York was notified about the meeting on Monday of this week. I am the Legislative and Political Director of the New York Metro Area Postal Union, APWU, and I immediately knew what was going on. The Postal Service was trying to slip one by the Harlem community.
The federal regulations on post office relocations are not very stringent — they were never intended for anything as important as the closure of major urban post office of historic significance — and they only require the Postal Service to hold or attend one public meeting, and it can be the regular meeting of an elected body.
Mr. Joseph Mulvey, a Postal Service retail specialist who has conducted many of these meetings, knows that he can avoid a lot of grief from angry citizens if not many people know about the meeting. In March of this year, he asked to be put on the agenda of the Manhattan Borough Board’s monthly meeting so he could give a presentation about three relocations planned for the city, all at once – Peter Stuyvesant, Triborough, and Old Chelsea. That would have permitted him to avoid three separate meetings in three communities. The meeting was scheduled for a weekday morning in lower Manhattan, far from the neighborhoods being affected, making it virtually impossible for working people to attend.
I knew what was up back then, and I reached out to the Manhattan Borough President’s office and the elected officials representing the three targeted communities about the federal regulations and the Postal Service’s M.O. Eventually, because of community response and the actions of the elected officials in the communities, separate meetings were held for each of the three post offices. A lot of concerned citizens turned out, not very happy about the prospect of losing their post office. They gave Mr. Mulvey a very hard time, and he was probably hoping to avoid a sequel with College Station.
Earlier this week, Mr. Mulvey was up to the same game with a couple of new twists. When he contacted the Assistant Manager of Community Board 10, Mr. Mulvey requested to be put on the agenda for the meeting of the Economic Development Committee so that he could lay out the proposal for the College Station Post Office. He neglected to mention to the Community Board that the Postal Service was also announcing this meeting in a Public Notice for the Relocation of the post office. In other words, unbeknownst to the Community Board, this would be the meeting for the community to have input into the relocation decision.
The Community Board committee was instead led to believe that this was the first meeting in a process, not the sole meeting for public participation. The Community Board also didn’t realize that this meeting would be the start of the 15-day comment period required by the federal regulations on relocations. The comment period would have run through December 27 — the height of the holiday period. This was obviously not the way to encourage community participation.
As soon as the APWU learned about the upcoming meeting scheduled for Thursday, I reached out to the leadership of Community Board 10 and to the elected officials that represent the Harlem Community. The union also notified members of the community, began a distribution of leaflets telling the community of the meeting, and sent out a press release. When the Community Board 10 leadership realized what was happening, they immediately responded. They notified Mr. Mulvey that he was being removed from the agenda.
Yesterday the Postal Service posted a notice at the College Station saying that it had “received notice from Community Board 10 that they canceled the Postal Service’s planned presentation from their December 12, 2013 meeting. The presentation has not at this time been re-scheduled.” While it was helpful that the Postal Service notified customers that the meeting was canceled, the notice makes it sound as if the Board didn’t want to hear about the relocation or to give the public an opportunity to discuss it. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The Board has its own rules about public meetings. While the Postal Service’s regulations may require only seven days’ notice, the Community Board’s rules require two weeks’ notice. While the Postal Service may simply post a notice in an obscure place in the post office, the Community Board sends out e-blasts notifying all interested parties about the upcoming meeting. The Board also makes sure that the meeting is held in an accessible location that will accommodate the people in the community who would want to attend. The Board would never schedule it for a room that would only hold 20 people. There are 17 members on that committee alone.
Mr. Mulvey also had to know that using this committee’s meeting on December 12 to fulfill the regulation requirements would cut down on the possibility of people attending, even if they found out about it. The Community Board’s office is located on West 125th Street in zip code 10027. College Station Post Office is located on West 140th Street in zip code 10030. For the elderly, disabled, poor, and small business owners (those most impacted by the “relocation”), it would have been a real hardship for them to attend the meeting. And since it also was taking place during the Christmas rush, postal workers would also find it difficult to be there too. Mr. Mulvey did his best to stack the deck.
What Mr. Mulvey didn’t count on was community leaders, elected officials, and the union working together to stop his less than honorable attempt to sneak one by. What he has accomplished instead is galvanizing the community to work to save its historic College Station Post Office. We will more than ready for Mr. Mulvey when he comes after Harlem’s post office next time.
Chuck Zlatkin is the Legislative and Political Director of the New York Metro Area Postal Union, APWU. The APWU press release announcing the cancellation of the meeting is here.