USPS #fail

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BY ZOË KEATING

I usually save my blog for music issues. This isn’t a music issue but everything is connected. That sense that the world is falling apart, that we can’t get our sh*t together … it affects me. So I’m going to self-indulgently vent … and then go write some angst-filled music.

Here’s the story.

On Oct 14, I got a letter from the USPS stating that our post office is again under study for permanent closure. I say “again” because the Camp Meeker, California, post office was on a national closure list in 2011, but after a six month feasibility study and lots of public comment, the USPS spared us in 2012 and said it would remain open but with reduced hours.

My neighbors and I have been fighting closure of the post office because it has one feature that makes it very important to our lives: it is the only place you can get your mail.

Camp Meeker is an old town from the 1880‘s and it is dense, with 350 houses packed into less than a square mile. The USPS, for historical reasons unknown to me, won’t deliver mail to any of the houses. Instead, every resident is assigned a free PO Box and picks up mail in a dilapidated trailer. The trailer was installed as temporary structure 40 years ago, across the street from the semi-collapsed remains of the previous post office built in 1906.

There are no other businesses in town.  There used to be hotels, a grocery store and even a bowling alley, but everything burned down or closed in the middle of the last century. So the dirty old postal shack is it.

It might be ugly, but it’s all we’ve got. It’s a place to run into your neighbors and there is a bulletin board to advertise free kittens and the local supper club. But mostly, it is where we get the mail. I wonder how many communities of the size and density of Camp Meeker not only have no post office but no mail delivery whatsoever?

I’m sure the the USPS thinks we don’t generate enough money to justify staying open. I’d argue (if they’d let me argue with them) that the primary purpose of our particular post office is that it is THE ONLY place to pickup mail, because they refuse to deliver it. But also, the USPS have only themselves to blame for their lack of revenue.

I run a small business. When I initially moved here I made a point of supporting the local post office. Every day I would mail all my CDs from the shack even though they had no digital system and clerks had to add up amounts on the back of an envelope, which meant there was no itemized receipt, mistakes were made and it took forever. I asked if maybe a digital system could be installed? No money for that, was the response.

Mailing things overnight is something I had to do pretty often, but because the pickup time here is late, you couldn’t actually use the USPS overnight service. The clerks wouldn’t even sell overnight delivery to me, because they knew the package wouldn’t actually get to it’s destination on time.

The post office never had any supplies to purchase like tape and was often out of priority mail boxes because the postmaster at the time had to use a computer to order them and he himself said he was afraid to use one. I’m not making this up. So, to buy tape, or a box or send something overnight I would drive 10 miles to the nearest UPS franchise.

Eventually I got fed up and outsourced all my mailing to my dear sister in Vermont. We still visited the post office every day though to pick up the mail.

I say “visited” because in June the post office closed without warning. We got home from Europe to find a handwritten note posted on the door.

“The post office is closed until further notice due to a sewage leak. This is a Haz Mak situation. All mail to be picked up at the Occidental post office until further notice”

(Yes it said “Haz Mak.”)

In an attempt to find out what had happened, our neighbor and Camp Meeker Park and Recreation board member Tony Tominia called and spoke with various officials in several USPS departments.

Tony talked in early July to Ken Boyd, a USPS manager in San Diego. Mr Boyd said the Occidental postmaster reported that the creek had backed up into the septic tank and then overflowed onto the postal trailer floor.  The postmaster told Mr Boyd that human feces were on the floor of the trailer. Hearing this, Mr Boyd made the decision to close the post office.

There is a wee flaw in this story: it’s summer in California and the creek is, literally, a trickle. Even in the wettest part of winter though, for the entire history of Camp Meeker, the creek has never come anywhere near the building. And, the postal shack doesn’t have a septic tank. It has a camp toilet.

Again, I’m not making this up.

The USPS hired an outside company to investigate the overflow, and also to test some mold on the outside of the trailer that the postmaster said was causing respiratory problems in everyone who worked there (like I said, this place is classy) . The forensics company determined that the liquid on the floor was water from a nearby sink and that the mold on the outside of the trailer was omnipresent in Camp Meeker and not harmful.

Mr Boyd told Tony that as soon as he received the paperwork to finalize the findings, which he expected in a few days, the Camp Meeker post office would be immediately reopened.

A couple days later,  Tony met with the postmaster who had reported the sewage, Jeannie Ramirez. She said that her real reasons for instigating the closure of the post office was not sewage but because her employees were complaining of respiratory issues from the mold and refused to work in the trailer. In other words, she lied.

What is curious about this is that I talked to one of her former employees, who was actually laid off along with another employee. She said that neither she, nor anyone else complained about respiratory problems or mold. So did Ms Ramirez lie about that too?

You’d think if the postmaster was so concerned about her employees exposure to mold that she might try get rid of the mold?   But rather than take 1 hr to scrub the mold off the outside of the trailer, or hire someone to do it, she preferred to inconvenience an entire community by closing their post office for more than four months.

I couldn’t figure out anyone’s motives until I looked online at the USPS regulations. Closing a post office takes months of procedure and public input, unless there is a safety issue with the postal facility. If there is a safety issue the USPS can close a post office immediately. Interesting.

Anyway, the post office remained closed. Weeks later Tony wrote to postmaster Ramirez, USPS managers Tony Carvelli and Eddie Masangcay, and Diana Alverado of USPS property management requesting an updated plan and timeline, along with an update to the sign on the post office door so that the public wasnt misled.

No one responded to the questions although the “Haz Mak” sign on the door of the post office was taken down and he got a call from Tony Carvelli

“Tony Carvelli called me. He expressed his displeasure with me sending emails to his superiors stating he had no plan or timeline.  I asked him what his plan was.  He replied he could not form a plan till he figures out what is wrong with the trailer.  I asked him his plan for determining what is wrong with the trailer.  He said he was trying to figure that out as well.  I told him based on that, I would continue to report that there is no plan and no timeline.”

A couple weeks later, on the suggestion of a local boy scout, Sebastopol’s Wolf Pack 128, Den 2 Cub Scouts retired the flag at Camp Meeker’s post office since it had remained flying outside all this time.

That was in August. Fast forward to 3 days ago when we got a letter from the postal service notifying us that another feasibility study is being conducted to see if permanent closure is possible. The letter stated that if residents wish to make comments they should attend a meeting next week on Oct 23 at the Occidental Post Office, at the rather inconvenient time of 5pm.

Jim Wigdel, s USPS public relations official, told our neighbor Tony that business had dropped off, so the status of the Camp Meeker post office is again up for review.

Um, yeah. It is hard to do any business when you’re CLOSED.

Since the post office closed, I’ve made sure to have all packages delivered directly to my house via UPS or FexEx. I’ve done this not just because I’m crazy and like to have mail delivered to my HOUSE, but because I don’t have the greatest confidence in the sorting abilities of the Occidental post office. Two packages addressed to me since the closure never arrived. They had tracking on them, and the USPS tracking says they arrived at the Occidental post office and were “delivered”. Delivered to whom? I’ve also received several letters in my mail pile that were addressed to someone else and had more than a few letters addressed to me returned to sender because they were addressed to my street address rather than PO Box.

I try to let everyone know about my PO Box, but occasionally a client will send something to my street address. In the past, clerks at the Camp Meeker office had a master list on the wall to match up names and street addresses with PO Boxes. If someone addressed a letter to my street I would still get it. However, now we get our mail in Occidental and postmaster Ramirez says that regulations require her to return such mail to sender. As a result I’ve tried to change all my bills and deposits to electronic. I can’t help but wonder how much of the drop off in business is due to other people doing the same? How much of the revenue drop is due to the USPS driving away their customers?

Apparently our expectations of anything Federal are so low that we no longer expect mail to be delivered, and the only employment opportunity in town – a single part-time job at $10 an hour with no benefits – is too extravagant an expense.

Off to make angst-filled music.


Zoë Keating is a Canadian-born cellist and composer.  Known for being a “one-woman orchestra” and for her DIY approach to music distribution, Zoë has been featured on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” and she was named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum.  Zoë writes about music on her blog zoekeating.com.

Photo credits: Camp Meeker, CA, post office; Zoe Keating.

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