How the West was won: The PMG’s trip to Montana

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In April of this year, as the moratorium on post office closings was coming to an end and thousands of communities were anxiously awaiting the verdict on their post office, the Postmaster General took some time out of his busy schedule to fly to Montana, just to talk with a few regular folks about the closings. 

The motive for the trip seemed mysterious at the time.  According to Newsweek, Donahoe went to Montana “to take his case for rural post office closures straight to the people it will hurt most, telling Montanans that up to 3,600 small post offices around the country need to be shuttered as part of cost-cutting moves.” That sounded more like a press release than an explanation. 

News reports said the trip was “spurred” by Montana senator Max Baucus, who wanted Mr. Donahoe to visit his state and answer questions from residents personally.  But did the Senator actually believe that a face-to-face meeting might turn the Postmaster General around and make him decide not to close those post offices after all?  That seemed unlikely. 

The Postal Service had put too much effort into its plan to close post offices for that to happen.  It had worked through complex legal hurdles to change the discontinuance procedures, conducted over three thousand community meetings, participated in a lengthy Advisory Opinion process with the Postal Regulatory Commission, and produced numerous reports, press releases, and PowerPoint presentations explaining why the closures were necessary.  A trip to Montana was not going to change the Postmaster General’s mind.

The visit had all the makings of a bad PR event.  One could imagine the Postmaster General up on stage and everyone in the audience complaining, pleading, and maybe getting a little raucous too.  Wasn’t the Postal Service worried that TV cameras would capture the Postmaster General getting booed by an angry crowd of rural Americans?

Last week, we learned why the Postmaster General went to Montana.  It wasn’t to make his case for closing post offices — he’d already decided not to.

 

Go west, young PMG

The Postmaster General arrived in Helena, Montana, on April 12, for what the media described as a “listening session.”  Apparently the PMG didn’t leave the airport.  The Postal Service decided it would be more convenient to hold the meeting at the second floor conference room at the Helena Regional Airport.  It must not have been very well publicized.  Only a few dozen people were in attendance.  But those who came were sure unhappy, and they gave the PMG an earful about why it would be better to close urban post offices rather than rural offices and how the post office should be a government service and "not a counter in a doughnut shop."  (Video here.)

"We are in a heck of a financial situation,” the PMG explained to the audience. “That is why it is so important we move ahead with some of the changes we need to make.  You have to do something. You can't sit back and wait."  

From Helena, it was on to the tiny town of Ingomar (pop. 95).  First stop?  Why the post office, of course.  The PMG and Senator Baucus couldn't leave Ingomar without spending some time admiring post office boxes.

The PMG and the Senator eventually pulled themselves away from the post office and headed over to the Jersey Lilly Saloon & Eatery, where the PMG rang a bell at the bar and bought everyone a round of drinks. 

The Jersey Lilly sounds like a fantastic place, by the way.  Famous for its Denver omelets and bean soup, it has an authentic Wild West interior, and the only bathrooms are outhouses.  (No word on whether the PMG checked out the facilities.)

After happy hour, it was time for the PMG to go to the Ingomar Tri-Rec Gymnasium for another “listening session.”   At the gym, the Postmaster General was greeted with a picnic table piled high with homemade baked goods.  According to one news report, the PMG was treated like a "visiting dignitary."

This time, there was quite a crowd.  Over 150 residents had driven in from all over the state.  Many of them lined up for a turn at the microphone to plead their case to the PMG.  They explained how they would be affected if their post office closed, what kind of inconveniences it would cause, how their small business would be hurt, how it would be impossible to get their medicines.  They were sincere, upset, a few even on the verge of tears.  (Video here.)

The PMG listened attentively for two hours, and at the end of the meeting, he received a standing ovation.  The PMG seemed very satisfied with his trip.  “I think that between here in Ingomar and over in Helena we really heard how important the Postal Service is for the state of Montana,” he told a reporter after the meeting.  “We know it’s important for the whole country.  We’ve just got to make the right decision going forward.”

 

The decider decides

Last week, the Postmaster General announced his decision: He wouldn’t be closing those 3,600 post offices after all.  As an alternative, the PMG presented POStPlan, a new initiative to cut the hours of operation at 13,000 post offices and to replace full-time career postmasters with part-time workers. 

The Postal Service and the media characterized the new plan as a response to the public’s fierce opposition to post office closings.  At the news briefing to announce POStPlan, the Postmaster General put it this way: "We've listened to our customers in rural America, and we've heard them loud and clear — they want to keep their post office open."

But how would rural America react to the new plan?  Would they buy into it and accept the reduced hours at 13,000 post offices as a better alternative to closing 3,600?

The Associated Press was quick with an answer.  What better way to gage how the country was feeling than to head back to Montana to hear from some typical residents of rural America?

"I am glad we made that kind of impression on him.  I really liked him and I felt he really paid attention, and apparently he did," said June Nygren, who runs the Jersey Lilly Saloon, where just a few weeks ago the PMG was buying rounds for the locals.  "I could live with this plan, and I think the majority of people could."

We now know that when the Postmaster General went to Montana in April, he didn’t really need to pay very much attention at all.  He wasn’t there to make a case for post office closings.  And he wasn’t there to listen to what people had to say, either.  He didn’t need to.  He had already decided not to close post offices.  POStPlan has been in the works since January, maybe a lot longer.

 

The making of POStPlan

In March 2011, the Postal Service began seeking changes to federal regulations that govern how post office are staffed and classified.  To many people, they  seemed like technical modifications, but postmasters knew better, and the postmasters' associations, NAPUS and the League, fought the changes from the get-go.  The new regulations changed the meaning of “consolidation” so that it would be possible to turn an independent post office into a subsidiary office, subordinate to a post office in another town, without going through the lengthy review process required for closing a post office.  The changes also made it possible for a postal worker other than a postmaster to run a post office.

Now those modifications are allowing the Postal Service to downgrade 13,000 independent post offices into RMPOs, “remotely managed post offices,” simply by issuing a list.  No need to send out questionnaires, hold a public meeting, analyze data, produce a Final Determination, and deal with appeals at the PRC — all part of the process formerly required when a post office was “closed or consolidated.”  And once a post office has been downgraded, it’s easy to reduce its hours and replace its full-time postmaster with a part-timer.

By the time the Postmaster went to Ingomar, POStPlan was already a done deal.  The Postal Service had published the proposed changes on "consolidation" and staffing in the Federal Register, worked out most of the details of the new plan with the postmasters’ associations, informed the Board of Governors, and conducted a market research study to show that people would prefer reduced hours to having the post office closed completely (as if they needed market research to prove that).  The Postal Service was probably also well along in its preparation of a Request for an Advisory Opinion on POStPlan, which will be submitted any day now.

 

Say good-bye to the postmaster

As subsequent events have shown, the trip to Montana was part of the Postal Service’s strategy for unveiling POStPlan.  The meetings in Helena and Ingomar were staged to show that the Postmaster General was “listening” so that the Postal Service could later characterize POStPlan as a response to the concerns of rural America.

The plan is actually something else.  It does exactly what the Postmaster General has said on numerous occasions that he planned to do — review about half the country’s post offices for closure (even though the PMG now says they never used the word “closure”).  POStPlan is not an alternative to closing post offices — it’s a means to close them. 

One of the main obstacles to closing post offices is postmasters, and POStPlan will get rid of nearly ten thousand postmaster positions.  The Postal Service has already eliminated four thousand by filling a postmaster vacancy with a Postmaster Relief, which used to be just a temporary thing.  Under POStPlan, some 9,500 postmasters have two years to find another position, and as each one leaves his or her post office, they’ll be replaced by a part-time worker who will likely not share the postmaster’s commitment to the job, ties to community, or concern for the fate of the post office. 

There are no stronger defenders of rural post offices than postmasters.  Every year, they use their leave time and their own money to travel to Washington, DC, to attend the Postal Forum, where they meet with their elected representatives and plead the case for rural America.  They pay dues to the postmasters’ associations to lobby on behalf of post offices.  Without a postmaster around, it will be much easier for the Postal Service to further reduce operating hours or close the office completely.

Over the next two years, the Postal Service will hold thousands of community meetings to discuss the options: replace your post office with a “village post office” (a postal counter in a private business, if there's one around that's interested), have a rural carrier serve as a “post office on wheels,” or reduce your post office’s operating hours to match its revenues.  Two of those three alternatives mean closing the post office, and reducing the hours is just an interim step toward a closing down the road. 

The Postal Service will review revenues on an annual basis, and since fewer operating hours will generate less revenue, it will make more cuts in the hours, until there’s nothing left to cut.  Eventually, there won’t be window hours at all.  Someone will come from another post office to unlock the door in the morning and case the mail for the few remaining box holders, and then return to lock up at the end of the day.  That’s not a post office.  That’s an indoor cluster box.

 

Mysteries remain

The mystery of the Postmaster General’s trip to Montana turns out to be not much of a mystery after all.   But many questions remain unanswered.

In March 2011, when the Postal Service first proposed redefining "consolidation,” did it simply want to "reduce customer confusion," as it told the PRC, or was it already drawing up a plan to cut hours and eliminate postmasters at thousands of post offices?

At what point did the Postal Service decide not to go forward with the RAOI to close 3,600 post offices?  In April 2012, when the Senate passed a bill that would have made closing post offices more difficult and the PMG “heard” the people of Montana?  In February 2012, when the PMG was meeting with the postmasters’ associations and the Board of Governors about POStPlan?  In December 2011, when the PRC issued its highly critical Advisory Opinion on the RAOI and the Senate pressured the PMG to implement a moratorium?

Was the Postal Service truly taken by surprise that the RAOI encountered so much resistance, or did it anticipate the protests and use the threat of mass closures as a bargaining tool?  Did the Postal Service ever intend to close those 3,600 post offices all at once?

To put it another way: Has the Postal Service just been winging it, sending up trial balloons, and improvising one misguided plan after another in a desperate response to events and forces that are out of its control? 

Or has the Postal Service been deviously orchestrating its strategy with Machiavellian skill — pitting the unions against the postmaster organizations, Democrats against Republicans, Senate against House?  Did it really play “bait and switch” and use the RAOI as a dodge to make POStPlan look more palatable?

(Photo credits: PMG at Jersey Lilly BarPMG at the Helena airport meetingPMG and Sen. Baucus at the Ingomar post officeIngomar post officePMG and Sen. Baucus at the Ingomar gympostal workers at the Helena meeting; Ingomar postmark)

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