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New Postmaster General

Rising postal rates and expenses, decreasing mail usage, and contract talks — why would anyone want to be Postmaster General?

The Postal Service Board of Governors Monday answered that question by naming career postal executive John E. "Jack" Potter the new Postmaster General. He succeeds William Henderson, who resigned late last year, effective May 31.

"I am looking forward to the challenge of making the Postal Service an even better place tomorrow than it is today," Potter said.

"Jack's talent and commitment have delivered success in providing affordable, universal mail service for the nation," said Robert F. Rider, chairman of the postal board of governors.

The job comes with a $161,200 salary.

Potter began his career 23 years ago as a distribution clerk in the Westchester suburbs north of New York City. All his postal posts have been in operations, including Vice President, Labor Relations. There, he negotiated the last contract with the powerful unions where a settlement was reached, rather than the result of arbitration.

Operations are where the Postal Service is having problems, and the contract talks with those unions are coming up.

Talking to postal workers via closed-circuit television, Potter sounded an optimistic note.

"I see a bright future for the mail and for the United States Postal Service," he said. "We are going through some rough economic times right now. But, we have been through challenging times in the past. Each time, we've adapted to become even stronger. I am confident that collectively we can do it again."

Although postal officials are now blaming rising fuel costs for the expected $2 billion deficit and other problems, they began a public relations assault on what they see as too much regulation even before gas prices took off. Under the 30-year-old law reorganizing the mail service, postage rates can't be raised without a review by the independent Postal Rate Commission, and that usually takes almost a year.

Worse, from the Postal Service point of view, it doesn't always get what it wants.

So last year, it began rattling the saber about not delivering the mail everywhere in the U-S or every day. Then it canceled hundreds of constructions projects, and made sure every community knew it was losing construction jobs, and why. Postal governors used every speaking occasion — even stamp collecting events — to tell the public the agency needed regulatory relief.

Now it's raising some rates July 1, the ones turned down by the PRC late last year. The USPS Board of Governors needed a unanimous vote to override those recommendations from the PRC, and at its meeting last month, it got it.

The U.S. Postal Service is watching its core business eroding: E-mail is replacing some personal correspondence, United Parcel Service competes strongly in the package delivery business, express companies like Federal Express and Airborne get the lion's share of the lucrative overnight market, and foreign postal agencies like Germany's Deutsche Post are offering to deliver mail from the U.S. to Europe more quickly and cheaply than the USPS.

At Congressional hearings earlier this month, everyone from Postal Service officials to Members of Congress to mailers agreed the system isn't working, but few if any solutions were offered.

But the mailing industry professes confidence that Potter does have the answers, or at least will find them.

"Jack's hands-on experience in postal management makes him the ideal candidate to focus on improving productivity and trimming costs, rather than simply increasing the rates paid by the mailing public," said Ed Gleiman, the former chairman of the Postal Rate Commission who is currently heading the Direct Marketing Association's postal reform campaign.

The former chairman of the House subcommittee that looked at postal operations was more cautious.

"The U.S. Postal Service is in the midst of a severe operational and financial crisis," said New York Republican Rep. John McHugh, in a statement. "I am hopeful that Mr. Potter's extensive experience within the Postal Service will prove helpful in confronting and overcoming the challenges facing the postal system."

The Postal governors haven't had much luck with Postmasters General who rose through the ranks, like Potter, incumbent William Henderson, and Paul Carlin (1985), but it's rumored outside candidates didn't want the job.

Potter holds a bachelor's degree in economics from Fordham University in New York and a master's degree in management from Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The governors' honeymoon with Henderson ended midway through his three years in the post, when The Washington Post revealed the USPS had spent $600,000 to move two executives from one Washington suburb to another. The moving expenses were legitimate and within guidelines, but the story embarrassed the Board of Governors.

Their relationship with Henderson began to sour, and late last year, he offered his resignation, effective May 31. It was accepted.

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