Postal commission clarifies role on contentious closure issues

Chairwoman explains why the panel hasn’t weighed in on urban vs. rural closures.

The Postal Regulatory Commission emphasized its advisory role to the U.S. Postal Service during a public meeting Wednesday in explaining why it has not taken a larger role in debates over whether to focus on rural or urban post office closings.

The conversation surrounding possible operation-shrinking initiatives for USPS has revolved primarily around whether to shutter post offices in rural areas.

PRC Chairwoman Ruth Goldway said the commission has not taken a more vocal role to switch the conversation from closing rural offices to urban ones because its relationship with USPS is chiefly a responsive one. “When the Postal Service is considering a change in service that may be nationwide, they come to us and ask us for our advisory opinion,” she said.

She added while USPS operationally has plans to consolidate post offices in urban areas, it is not doing so in a way that necessitates action from the advisory panel.

“If we determine that the Postal Service is going ahead with some changes that are of nationwide impact without coming to us, then we might ask them to come to us,” Goldway said. “But at the moment, the normal procedure is that we respond to their proposals.”

The commission also responds to appeals of closure decisions.

Goldway stated at the start of the meeting that PRC currently is set to advise USPS on four contentious proposals: to change nationwide service standards; to consider changes to operating hours at up to 17,000 post offices; to offer enhanced services related to post office boxes; and to file for a Negotiated Services Agreement with marketing company Valassis.

“It’s going to be a very difficult three months for us,” she acknowledged.

The most recent advisory opinion PRC gave on the distinction between urban and rural service consolidations was in response to USPS’ Retail Access Optimization Initiative, the panel said. That opinion is dated Dec. 23, 2011.

Of that opinion, Commissioner Mark Acton said Wednesday, “we weren’t making a distinction between urban and rural other than the sense that there was a disproportionate impact between rural and urban. And we were encouraging a service that provided a plan that provided for suitable alternative access whether it was in an urban or a rural setting.”

Goldway pointed out that USPS has been working to cut costs in urban areas as well as rural, noting in particular the agency’s efforts to sell off some of its most valuable urban property.

Also talked about at the meeting was pending research to determine updated proper pricing and demand for postal services. The results of the research, being performed by PRC Office of Accountability and Compliance Director Margaret Cigno, PRC staff economist Elena Patel, and consultant Ed Pearsall, have no set release date.

PRC spokeswoman Ann Fisher cautioned that the work “is not intended to represent a commission viewpoint or position” and that “no conclusions have been drawn yet.”

Opening PRC meetings to the public was a point of pride for the five-member commission.

“We may not come to an opinion that everybody is pleased with, but we certainly want to make the commission itself open and accessible and understandable to everybody,” Goldway said.