BERKELEY -- Around 200 people rallied Tuesday evening at the Maudelle Shirek Building, with the nation's first postmaster, Ben Franklin, (channeled by monologuist Josh Kornbluth) in an effort to save the city's 99-year old post office from a possible sale.
Afterward, many crowded into the City Council chamber to meet with three United States Postal Service representatives, while others watched the televised proceedings.
But after the meeting where some 50 people had spoken against the sale, Save the Berkeley Post Office organizers questioned whether officials had taken their concerns seriously.
Calling the meeting "pro forma," Gray Brechin, visiting scholar in the UC Berkeley Department of Geography said people around the country have told him they came to meetings, opposed the sale of their post offices, and the USPS then "simply ignores the public input, and goes ahead and sells the building."
Brechin said that could be happening in Berkeley.
The postal service, which is looking to cut costs nationwide, is required to hold community meetings before a sale.
"We have to make (the community response) part of the public record," said USPS spokesman Augustine Ruiz. "One of the obligations we have is to be very transparent."
Ruiz kicked the meeting off with a slide presentation detailing the dismal state of post office finances, including a $15.9 billion net loss in 2012.
He explained that part of the problem is the declining volume of first-class mail, due to increased use of electronic mail.
"It's not going to come back -- it is gone," he said, pointing out, however, that online purchases have boosted postal service package deliveries.
The bigger problem is a 2006 law Ruiz called "an onerous requirement forced upon us by Congress" that the post office pay 75 years of retirement health benefits in advance over 10 years. "Without that prefunding requirement, we actually would be able to survive," Ruiz said.
Both USPS and post office activists have called on Congress to reverse that obligation and asked for the right of the postal service to engage in revenue-enhancing businesses.
As far as the Berkeley building, the public can submit written comments to USPS on the proposed sale until March 13 and after that there are 15 additional days to appeal a decision. USPS facilities manager Diana Alvarado said a price for the property has been set, but called the information "proprietary" when asked for the figure.
That response frustrated Councilwoman Linda Maio, who noted during the public comment period that USPS initially ignored the City Council's September request for information on the physical state of the buildings. The city submitted a Freedom of Information Act request at the end of October and the postal service didn't respond until February.
"We've had a difficult working relationship with the post office," Maio said. "We wound up having to file a Freedom of Information Act for basic real estate information that I'm sure that Richard Blum got very easily. Now we will be filing a Freedom of Information Act request for the appraisal that we should know about."
Blum, a UC Berkeley trustee and chairman of the giant real estate firm Caldwell Banker Richard Ellis, which has a contract to market USPS properties, was the object of heated comments by several speakers.
The postal service wants to sell the Berkeley Post Office and lease back the space it needs.
Brechin contended that Blum, who is married to U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, has "an exclusive contract ... to sell the public's property that it doesn't own and then to lease it back to the postal service."
Asked whether Feinstein has a conflict of interest, Brian Weiss, Feinstein's spokesman, said in an email: "Senator Feinstein is not involved with and does not discuss any of her husband's business decisions with him. Her husband's holdings are his separate personal property ... (and her) assets are held in a blind trust."
Speakers were also concerned with possible privatization of the postal service and condemned the consolidation of sorting facilities, plans to curtail mail delivery to five days a week, closures of post offices around the country and slashing of postal hours.
"Privatization also means getting rid of unions," said Ying Lee, a past city councilwoman and congressional aide. "We, the 99 percent know, how important decent jobs with a living wage are."
Postal activists said they won't stop organizing. If USPS decides to sell the post office, Bob Meola, active in Berkeley's Peace and Justice Commission, promised "nonviolent civil disobedience -- if it comes to that."