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Congressman Says Postmaster Needn't Be Fired to Solve Problems


After the first field hearing ever conducted by a congressional subcommittee into the operations of a local post office, Rep. Frank McCloskey (D-Ind.) said Monday that San Diego County Postmaster Margaret Sellers has areas to be improved but doesn't deserve to be fired.

"After all that I have heard, and it's a lot, I would say she's too aloof and too bottom-line-oriented, and I advise her to do better," said McCloskey, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Postal Operations and Services.

After the hearing, which was marked by emotional testimony from postal workers and occasional outbursts of cheers and applause, Sellers said she felt vindicated.

"I've never felt my job was on the line," said Sellers, 56, who became postmaster in 1979 and remained in charge throughout the county's stunning growth during the past decade. "I thought it was a fair hearing, and I'll try to look into all of the things that surfaced here today. I'll try to make changes."

Asked to elaborate, Sellers waved off her questioners and moved outside. At one point, however, she responded to a question about job security as she headed toward the door.

"I don't feel secure in my job, but rather I feel secure in my position with the Postal Service. I work for (Postmaster General Anthony) Frank, and I believe he supports me wholeheartedly."

One of Frank's top lieutenants, Assistant Postmaster General Joseph J. Mahon Jr., testified with Sellers during the five-hour hearing. He and Sellers defended the district's track record, using such words as productivity and efficiency and speaking of the need to cut costs during an era marked by retrenchment and phenomenal growth.

At the behest of Rep. Jim Bates (D-San Diego), McCloskey chaired Monday's session at the Federal Building downtown to examine in detail postal operations in the county and, specifically, Sellers' leadership.

Bates said he had received thousands of letters from disgruntled postal workers after an Escondido letter carrier, John Merlin Taylor, went on an August shooting rampage, in which he killed his wife and two co-workers, then turned the gun on himself. The four deaths brought to eight the postal-related killings or suicides in San Diego County in eight months.

Bates, McCloskey and Rep. Charles Hayes (D-Ill.), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Postal Personnel and Modernization, lauded Sellers for her accomplishments as an organizer and cost-cutter, but seemed to find her lacking in relating to people.

"It was some good reality testing," Bates said after the hearing. "Like all of us, Sellers has done some good things, and then there are definite areas for improvement."

Bates said Monday's hearing marked the first time in the history of Congress that a subcommittee had made an inquiry into the operations of a local post office. He said further hearings are possible, but none are planned. He did note, however, that McCloskey will come to San Diego in two months to reappraise the situation.

The hearing room on the fourth floor of the Federal Building was packed, with all 111 seats taken and hundreds of postal workers waiting outside. Most never got in.

At one point, Hayes, a large man with a thundering voice, strode to the hallway and apologized--loudly and oratorically--that "all of you people got left out."

Space wasn't the only problem. No court reporter was available when the session started at 1:30 p.m., so actual testimony did not begin for at least another hour. The "court reporter" ended up being a postal worker who volunteered the microphone from his video camera to record the proceedings.

On several occasions, postal workers chastised management personnel for what McCloskey later referred to as "winning-through-intimidation" approaches, "in the tradition of Captain Bligh," which he said had to stop.

"We're not waving any magic wands here today," McCloskey said more than once, "but we can highlight some problems and talk about them."

Some of the recommended solutions include fewer bosses and more workers, more lenient hours for overtime, rerouting of routes, curtailing of so-called Third Class "junk" mail and, above all, more democratic means of settling grievances and on-the-job differences.

Bates in particular took pains to point out the "tremendous hostility" between workers and management and pointed to "martinet supervisors" who resort to "intimidation, pressure and pettiness toward employees."

The relationship between labor and management "is clearly adversarial," he said, adding that the grievance process is "seriously flawed."

He called the atmosphere in Sellers' domain "Orwellian."

"There is real stress here," McCloskey said. "That much is obvious. But we're an oversight group, and I think we got some valuable things on the table. There's so many problems, but I hope we can inspire everyone to be better."

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