Witness for the Post Office: The Mayor testifies, the Postal Service cross-examines


If you want to get a sense of how desperate the Postal Service is, don’t look at how big its deficit is.  Instead, check out how the Postal Service attorneys responded to the testimony of a small-town mayor in Iowa who took the time to testify to the Postal Regulatory Commission about the Postal Service’s plan to close thousands of post offices, including his.

The USPS lawyers try to take apart the mayor’s testimony by posing twenty-three questions intended to show the bias, false assumptions, and lack of evidence in what the mayor said.  But the Postal Service’s “interrogatories” do not address the real substance of the testimony.  Instead, they are petty, snide, and disrespectful, and they reveal more about the mentality of the Postal Service than they do about the credibility of the mayor’s testimony.

Donny Hobbs is the mayor of Lohrville, Iowa, in Calhoun County.  He has four children and a degree in music, and his day job is doing design work for an internationally renowned pipe organ builder.  A few months ago, when Iowa was hit hard by news of hundreds of potential post office closings, Mayor Hobbs helped organize a group called Iowans for Post Office Services (IPOS) — elected officials and community leaders representing fifty towns and cities in Iowa as well as various community organizations like Iowa League of Cities. 

Mayor Hobbs doesn’t get paid for the many hours he spends on IPOS, and it’s easy to see he put a lot of time and effort into writing his testimony to the PRC.  It’s a sixteen-page document that reflects the thoughts and feelings of thousands of people in Iowa, as well as the rest of rural America.

The testimony does a beautiful job covering a wide range of topics: how much the Postal Service’s reputation will be damaged by closing post offices to save a very small amount of money; how the Village Post Office is a totally inadequate replacement for a real post office and how it would certainly not provide “the maximum degree of service” required for rural communities by the law; how seniors depend on a nearby post office, especially in bad weather; how many people depend on the post office for medicine; how small businesses would be strained if they needed to take time to drive to another town to do postal business; how the idea of letter carriers as “Post Offices on Wheels” won’t work because people can’t stand at their mailbox waiting for the carrier to show up; how much economic development depends on having a post office in the town; how the post office is the “heart and soul” of a rural town; how people meet and chat and make plans for the community while they’re at the post office; how proud people are of their post office; and how closing thousands of post offices, instead of helping to bind the country together, will end up “dividing the nation asunder.”

The Postal Service might have welcomed the testimony with a gracious “thank you” and tried listening to a first-hand account of someone who really knows what a post office means to a small town.  Instead, the lawyers for the Postal Service go on the offensive and produce five pages of legal interrogatories that attempt to discredit the testimony.  The lawyers only end up discrediting the Postal Service — no easy task at this stage of the game.

The Postal Service begins by asking Mayor Hobbs to identify all the “corporations, partnerships, businesses, commercial entities, governmental and non-profit entities, other organizations and individuals who serve as sources of funding, governance or direction for Iowans for Post Office Services,” and to indicate which of them own properties leased to the Postal Service. 

The question implies that some people in IPOS stand to benefit personally by keeping post offices open and are not really representing their communities.  This is probably a reference to the fact that one of the members of IPOS is the governor of Iowa, Terry Branstad, who owns a dozen buildings leased to post offices.  Branstad’s motives for criticizing post office closings have been questioned in the media, but his response is entirely reasonable: only one of the post offices he owns is on the closing list, and he is not being impacted in a significant way.  The Postal Service thus impugns the motives of the members of IPOS for no reason.  It’s really an insult to the governor, mayors, and community leaders to imply, even indirectly, that they have anything on their minds but the good of the communities they serve.

Mayor Hobbs testified that one businessman in his town told him if the post office closes, he’ll use the Postal Service less, use private shipping companies more, and work harder to switch to electronic delivery of bills.  Hobbs suggests many people will feel the same way.  That’s not good enough for the Postal Service attorneys, who ask to see “all surveys and research underlying the proclamation” that citizens and business owners will use the post office less if it closes. 

You would think that the Postal Service would have done its own studies about how much business it stands to lose by closing post offices.  When it figures the cost savings in closing a post office, it carefully calculates how much it will save in rent and labor, down to the penny, but it makes no effort to consider how much revenue may be lost.  It simply assumes that all the income will transfer to another location. 

But in the UK, where they have closed over 7,000 post offices and done numerous studies on the effects, one study on the impacts of closing the West Sussex post office found while the majority of customers transferred their business to other post offices, 11% did not, and many reduced the number of times they go to post offices, which reduced the amount they spend. 

Mayor Hobbs testified that small businesses cannot “afford to take an extra 30 minutes to drive to another town to send the package.”  The Postal Service attorneys jump on this and ask him to “please indicate the approximate distances and normal driving times from Lohrville to: (a) the Post Office in Lake City to the west; and (b) the Post Office in Farnhamville to the east.”

The Postal Service has some nerve.  After all the bogus distance charts and data it has presented to the PRC using “as the crow flies” distances rather than actual driving distances, the Postal Service now implies that Mayor Hobbs has exaggerated how far it is from Lohrville to the next-nearest post office.

According to Google Maps, the distance from Lorhville to Lake City is 8.3 miles, a 14-minute drive each way, and to Farnhamville, 9.7 miles, a 15-minute drive.  So the mayor’s estimate of 30 minutes is totally accurate, and if anything an underestimate, given that Google Maps doesn’t include time for traffic, parking, etc. 

The Postal Service also asks the mayor to confirm that “the approximate driving distance from your place of employment to its nearest postal retail location is approximately 0.2 miles.”  Is the Postal Service trying to make the point that it’s just a couple of blocks from the organ company where the mayor works to the Lake City post office?  OK, but what’s that got to do with closing the post office in Lohrville, over 8 miles away?  

In its next set of interrogatories, the Postal Service gets a bit snide.  Mayor Hobbs testified that for the elderly, going to the post office in town, where the sidewalks are shoveled during winter, is safer than walking down an icy driveway to a mailbox.  He added that “in Lohrville, as in other rural communities, we value our elders. This is a huge concern of people in our town.”

And how does the Postal Service respond?  “In your opinion, would the residents of Lohrville value their elderly neighbors sufficiently to volunteer to conduct postal transactions for them or make trips to the Post Office for them during periods of high heat, snow or ice, if the nearest available Post Office were in Lake City or Farnhamville?”  In other words, if you value your seniors so much, wouldn’t you run a postal errand for them?  The real question is, why is the Postal Service abandoning its own responsibilities to provide service to the elderly and other vulnerable populations? 

In several follow-up questions on the issue of needing to drive to another town to get to a post office, the Postal Service suggests that it won’t really mean all that much extra driving because people will combine a visit to the post office with other errands.  That presumes, of course, that people need to drive to other towns for their regular errands.  But has the Postal Service done any studies on this?  The UK has, and one study found that extra trips to the post office in another town were inevitable, which posed a particular hardship for the most vulnerable.  Since the Postal Service likes hard numbers, how about these, from the UK study “Post Office Closures: Impact of the Network Change Programme”:

“Quantitative research in this area supports our finding that vulnerable consumers have the greatest difficulty in accessing an alternative post office once their local branch has closed. According to Postcomm research in 2005 on the impact of the previous closure programme, ‘Those in vulnerable groups are more likely to regard access to their local branch as quite difficult or very difficult: in closure areas 11 per cent of those from non-vulnerable groups are in this category, but 20 per cent of those aged 65 or over; 39 per cent of disabled; 28 per cent of those without a car; and 36 per cent of those without access to public transport.’”  

Mayor Hobbs testified that rural post offices “provide a valuable service connecting us to the world, they are that stalwart that has, historically, been in every community across America.”  Rather than simply acknowledging the value of the post office, as Mayor Hobbs does, the Postal Service comes back with a “gotcha”: “Please state the basis for your assertion that a rural Post Office has historically been in every community across America.”  (The italics are in the USPS document.)

That’s what high-priced USPS lawyers come up with?  Too bad the cross-examination isn’t taking place in a courtroom, so we could see the USPS Perry Masons challenging the witness: “So, Mayor Hobbs, are you saying that every community in the country has had a post office?”  Hobbs breaks down in tears at this point and confesses that he made it up and hadn't checked to make sure every community has had a post office.  The defense rests, your honor.  Case closed — and the post office too.

The Postal Service then asks Mayor Hobbs about his comments that a post office makes a significant contribution to a community’s image and identity.  You might think that the Postal Service is fully aware of this function of a post office, but instead the lawyers ask the Mayor to “provide references to (including electronic links) or, in the alternative, copies of to all sociological studies, economic analyses, public surveys, and other data sources you consulted in preparing your testimony.”

Mayor Hobbs never claimed he had done exhaustive research on the role of a post office in providing a community with a sense of identity.  He was reporting from his own experience and from talking to people in Iowa.  That’s the value of his testimony — it’s not an academic study and it doesn’t use a lot of statistics to make its points. 

If the Postal Service really gave a hoot about the value of a post office to a small town, it could commission its own studies.  Maybe it could hire one of those consulting firms it likes to contract with — consulting firms like McKinsey & Company, which has an international reputation for supporting “clients as they position themselves to meet regulatory requirements and accompany them on the road to successful privatization” — so that it could be sure of getting an objective view of things.  (Italics mine.)

Or maybe the Postal Service could take a look at a study commissioned by the PRC entitled “A Framework for Considering the Social Value of Postal Services,” which notes how the Postal Service and local post offices support social connection and community identity.  Or maybe the Postal Service could just read a few of the thousands of news articles that have come out over the past few months, most of which include a quotation or two from local residents expressing their fears about how closing the post office will hurt the community’s sense of identity and image.  Or maybe it could just hear what people tell them at all those public hearings they're holding.

Mayor Hobbs mentioned in his testimony that in England “small businesses participants in government focus groups have said that they would consider moving their business from their village to another, if their village lost its Post Office.”  In response, the USPS Clarence Darrows pose this interrogatory: “Please provide all information that identifies any businesses in England that responded to the closure of a Post Office in their village by actually moving to another village just to have a Post Office within walking distance.”  (Yes, the Postal Service actually used those italics again.)

The Postal Service could Google “UK impact of post office closure on business,” and it would quickly discover several reports documenting how small businesses have been impacted by post office closings in the UK.  These studies may not list businesses that have actually moved because the post office closed, but they certainly show how businesses have been affected, and the impacts are never positive.  A study entitled “The Last Post: the social and economic impact of changes to postal services in Manchester” found that “60% of local businesses witnessed significant impacts, either to their business, to their clients and/or customers, or to the area in general following the closure of the local Post Office.” 

Anyway, just to show how petty the Postal Service gets in its interrogatories, the final question pretty much says it all.  Mayor Hobbs had stated in his testimony that everyone uses the post office in a small town, and “That is why it is the tried and true place for public notices, legal and mundane.”  He was apparently referring to the bulletin board in the post office, which people in small towns use to communicate with each other. 

The Postal Service asks the mayor to explain the difference between “legal” and “mundane” and to “describe examples of such notices posted by the city of Lohrville at the Lohrville Post Office during your tenure as Mayor.”  The Postal Service helpfully provides an excerpt from the Postal Operations Manual which states that the bulletin board in a post office is strictly for “official government notices, notices of public assemblies, judicial sales, official election notices issued by state or local government, and similar announcements.” 

So now the Postal Service wants to go after the post office bulletin board?  No more notices about lost pets or the bake sale at the fire department or the yard sale next Saturday on Elm Street?  The Lohrville postmaster is probably hearing from his district supervisor that he’d better get that stuff off the bulletin board, pronto.  Maybe it’s a good idea.  We wouldn’t want anyone to miss the “Final Determination” notice announcing the last day of the post office.

(Mayor Hobbs’ testimony is here; the Postal Service’s interrogatories are here.)

(Photo credits: Lohrville post office; Donny Hobbs at a town meeting on the post office, with two-year-old Bridget)