Two can play that game: The PRC changes the rules for appeals

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Changing the rules in the middle of the game?  Looks like two can play that game.

In July, the Postal Service changed the rules for closing post offices.  Some of the changes were responses to criticisms made by the Postal Regulatory Commission (PRC) about how the Postal Service was making it difficult for patrons to protest a post office closing.  The Postal Service has promised to make the process more transparent and to ensure that communities are given sufficient notification and opportunity to comment.  But the main thrust of the Postal Service’s procedural changes was to “streamline” the process to make it easier and faster to close post offices.

In response, the PRC is proposing to make some changes of its own, so that it will be easier and faster to appeal a closing decision to the PRC.  The changes may not save many post offices, but they could certainly make life more difficult for the Postal Service — and expensive too.  Those legal bills are going to start adding up.

The issue of appeals has been intensifying over the past few months as their sheer number has increased at a dizzying rate.  The PRC website has a list of 63 appeals cases that have been filed since Dec. 23, 1997.  During the ten-year period 1997 to 2007, there were only six appeals, and in no year was there more than one. 

Then in 2010, there were eleven appeals — that’s when the Postal Service began its “Station and Branches Optimization” initiative to close over 700 post offices.  But things really started picking up in January 2011, and over the past eight months, 43 appeals have been filed with the PRC, 31 of them since July.

Definitive numbers are hard to come by, but the website Postal Reporter has been tracking  the closings, and it looks like there have been about 150 closings since the beginning of the year.  That means about one in four is appealing.  At that rate, if the Postal Service closes 4,000 post offices over the next year, the PRC will be handling a thousand appeals. 

It’s likely that there will be plenty of cases that justify an appeal.  With thousands of post offices closing, it may be difficult for the Postal Service managers not to make the kind of procedural mistakes that provide grounds for an appeal.  Even in the relatively few closings of the past year, the Postal Service has been accused of doing an inadequate job in making its case for closures.

For example, the community of Chillicothe, Iowa, is appealing the closure of its post office on the grounds that the Postal Service “failed to consider whether or not it will continue to provide a maximum degree of effective and regular postal services to the community,” and it  also “failed to consider the effect of the closing on the community” — considerations that are required by law.  The community of East Camden, Arkansas, is appealing the closure of its post office on the grounds that “the Postal Service failed to adequately consider the economic savings resulting from the closure,” and there were also “factual errors contained in the Final Determination.”

No wonder the PRC thought it might be a good idea to streamline the appeals process.  The PRC may also need to think about getting its own state-of-the-art, web-based computer program to handle appeals, just to keep up with the Postal Service, which is using a Change Suspension Discontinuance Center (CSDC) program  to close post offices.

The PRC hopes to be ready with its new procedures when the RAOI post offices start filing appeals, which could come as early as late October — when the first of these post offices closes.  PRC Chairman Ruth Y. Goldway says the changes are a response to the Postal Service’s efforts to close a large number of post offices.  “These rules are being considered to provide an improved review process for the expanding number of post office closure appeals that is simpler, fairer and easier to understand,” said Goldway.

The PRC press release on the new improved rules says the changes are “designed to simplify the procedures for people wishing to appeal a post office closing or consolidation, and allow for a speedier decision.”  The changes will ensure that the procedures “more accurately reflect current practices,” and they will make the appeals process “more user friendly.”  The new procedures would also “clarify the scope of the Commission’s appeal authority and eliminate any public uncertainty as to when anyone served by a particular office may appeal a determination to close or consolidate that office.”

The PRC document on the proposed changes has all the details.  Here’s a summary of the main changes:

1. Speeding up the decision process: The changes would streamline the process so that the PRC would issue a decision within 75 days, instead of taking up to 120. 

2. No need for electronic filing: “The new rules excuse petitioners and persons other than the Postal Service from electronic filing requirements,” and they also “excuse participants who choose to file by First-Class Mail from service on other participants.”  In other words, you don’t have to be part of the digital revolution and hooked up to the internet if you want to make an appeal.

3. Less legal jargon: The Commission has edited the rules by shortening sentences and removing legal jargon wherever possible.

4. Stations and Branches: One issue addressed in the new rules is the definition of “post office.”  The Postal Service has a long history of considering stations and branches as something other than a post office, and hence not subject to the same closing process outlined in the law and Postal Service handbook.  The PRC has always taken a different view, arguing that for legal purposes, a station or a branch is a post office and should enjoy the same legal protections, including the right of appeal.  So the PRC has heard appeals over stations and branches which the Postal Service does not acknowledge as legitimate. 

In its recent changes to procedures, the Postal Service seemed to put the matter to rest by acceding to the PRC’s view that stations and branches should be treated like post offices, but apparently the issue continues to be an issue.  It may be that the Postal Service wants the new definition to apply only to facilities initiated for closure as part of the RAOI.  That means a branch is not a post office if it was initiated for closure before July, but a branch is a post office if it was initiated for closure starting in July.

The PRC apparently finds this reasoning specious.  The PRC says its new rules would define a “post office” as “a Postal Service operated retail facility.”  In other words, a station or a branch is a post office.  At the same time, the PRC leaves the door open for more debate: “The Commission will carefully review alternative definitions offered by the Postal Service and any other interested commenters.  A thorough review of the issue and the establishment of a clear and understandable definition through rulemaking will eliminate confusion to the benefit of the Commission, the Postal Service, and all postal patrons.”

(Just as an aside, it's interesting how the Postal Service has been so reluctant to acknowledge that a branch or station — which provides all postal services — is in fact a "post office," yet it seems quite happy to call something a "Village Post Office" when it provides very few postal services — no parcels, nothing that requires weighing or tracking — and doesn't even do postmarks.  Postalspeak at its best.)

5. Suspended post offices: Many post offices have been closed by “emergency suspension” — the building has been deemed unsafe, or it has been blown away by a tornado, or — and this is a controversial issue — there’s been a problem with the lease.  The Postal Service has been accused of manufacturing lease problems as a way to suspend a post office, and there’s an ongoing investigation being conducted by the PRC.  (More on emergency suspensions can be found here.)

When a post office is suspended, the closure is supposed to be temporary, and the Postal Service is still obligated to go through the normal closing procedures.  But since the process takes place after the post office has closed, correct procedures are not always followed.  For example, since the post office under review is closed, the Postal Service sometimes posts the proposal to close at a distant post office, so patrons often are unaware of important details about the process.  The PRC proposes a rule change that requires customers of suspended post offices to receive notice of proposals to close and final determinations by First-Class Mail.

The changes to procedures being proposed by the PRC are open for public comment.  The deadline for comments is October 3, 2011.

(Photo credits and more information about post offices under appeal: Still Pond, MDPinehurst NCFreehold NJ; Ukiah CA; Noosak WA; Thayer IA.)

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