By David K. Shipler
I bumped into L.J. Hopkins outside the post office yesterday, and he was beaming as I’ve never seen him. He’s always an affable guy, but the smile now glows. With the help of a variety of dedicated folks from many walks of life, from lobstermen to legislators to lawyers, he has won and brought victory to everyone in two small island communities off the coast of Maine.
This report of the happy ending to the story comes in response to far-flung readers who, despite having no personal connection to this tale, asked to learn the ultimate outcome after I described the problem last June. It is partly David and Goliath, partly a case study on how to move a gargantuan bureaucracy that doesn’t give a wit about the little guy.
Six months ago, the US Postal Service decided that a convenient arrangement was no longer permissible. For nearly thirty years, L. J. had been carrying the mail for the adjacent islands of Swan’s Island and Frenchboro, along with UPS and FedEx packages, prescription medicines and engine parts that islanders needed, and groceries for the island’s only store. His mother had done the same thing for decades before him.
Every morning, L.J. drove his white van, loaded up with essentials, onto the state-run ferry on the mainland, got off on Swan’s, delivered his goods, and took an afternoon ferry home. The stuff destined for Frenchboro then got put into a seaworthy lobster boat owned by the Swan’s Island storekeeper, Brian Krafjack, who would make the run across open water to Frenchboro, weather be damned.
This lifeline is no small matter. It helps to make the islands viable, keeps them inhabited at a time when the temptations of mainland life play on the imaginations of the younger generations. Swan’s Island has 332 year-round residents, Frenchboro, 61. L.J.’s service has helped islanders who struggle financially avoid some of the steep ferry fares they’d have to pay to spend most of a day going off for medicine or parts.
Then last March, the recently-arrived postmaster in Southwest Harbor, where L.J.’s cargo of mail originated, reinterpreted a contract provision to mean that no goods other than mail could be transported in the same vehicle. The postal contract kept L.J. afloat; without it he could not make ends meet bringing just the other goods to the island. A crass businessman would have kept the mail deal and chucked the others. Not L.J. He wouldn’t abandon the needs of the islanders, so he refused to carry mail exclusively, and therefore lost the contract. (The Postal Service signed a temporary, six-month agreement with another contractor.) He kept on coming with only FedEx and UPS and special orders from individuals, and in the process was losing several thousand dollars a month.
People on the islands have their feuds and mutual dislikes, but when threatened by an outside force, they band together. Both year-round and summer residents began to mobilize. And here’s where the story gets instructive. They held a fundraiser for L.J. They wrote to their representatives in Washington; Senators Susan Collins (R) and Angus King (I), and Representative Bruce Poliquin (R). They got the local press to do stories. And nothing happened.
The legislators’ staff assigned to the case were slow to move, and when they did appeal to the Postal Service, they were stonewalled. They got nowhere. The elected legislators themselves did not get involved for months; they finally wrote a joint letter to the postmaster general in mid-August, nearly five months after the issue arose. The letter appealed for non-postal cargo to be allowed along with mail, noting the law’s provision for the Postal Service to enter into delivery contracts “under such terms and conditions as it deems appropriate.” This looked like a good argument for flexibility.
"We thought the Congressional delegation letter would be convincing and the Postal Service would quickly do the right thing,” said Keith S. Harriton, an environmental and energy attorney from Connecticut with a vacation house on Swan’s. “We were wrong. The Postal Service dawdled and delayed and refused to be swayed by the letter and follow-up telephone calls by our elected representatives. Then they accelerated the timetable” for bids for the long-term contract, trying to run the clock, apparently. The Postal Service’s legislative liaison finally rejected the appeal by Maine’s two senators and the district’s congressman. Maine state officials including Governor Paul LePage and State Representative Walter Kumiega also weighed in with the postmaster general, to no avail.
Throughout, the post office gave Brian, the store owner, the run-around in response to his own appeal, which was well researched, posed detailed questions, and made sharp points about provisions in the regulations for accommodations in such special circumstances as isolated communities. A petition, circulated on paper and online, garnered more than 700 signatures from year-round and summer residents. The post office was unmoved and, oddly, even inserted a requirement that, in the next contract, the vehicle be “a station wagon,” Keith reported, thereby writing L.J.’s van out of contention.
Here’s the civics lesson: Neither grassroots objections, common sense, nor high-level legislative intervention budged the bureaucracy. The turning point came when skilled lawyers went into action. “When I told Brian I didn't like bullies (especially governmental ones), and offered a lawyer's look,” Keith Harriton wrote in an email to islanders, “I didn't have to finish my sentence before Brian took me up on it. It was the beginning of a combined effort.”
Keith and Brian, with the support of others on the island (including an intrepid woman going through intense chemotherapy) kept the fires burning. Teaming up with the law firm Venable, with offices in Washington, D.C., and Virginia, Keith and the firm “determined that the only way to stop the runaway train,” as Keith explained, “was to file a Bid Protest in the Court of Federal Claims in Washington, D.C.” A pre-filing notice, served on the Department of Justice and the Postal Service, “alleged bad faith on the part of the Postal Service and sought an injunction from the Court compelling the Postal Service to rescind the solicitations, rescind and abandon the arbitrary restrictions contained in the solicitations and negotiate a continuation of L.J.'s decades long contract based on its prior terms.”
The filing accused the Postal Service of imposing an “arbitrary and unjustified” restriction. It made strong arguments, and it “got the Postal Service's attention,” Keith said. Five days later, the post office offered to talk, and in what Keith called a “spirited discussion,” the Postal Service’s lawyers agreed to allow freight and mail in the same vehicle, as long as the mail was in “a separate, secure container.” L.J. and Brian made their contract bid jointly—L.J. for the leg from the mainland to Swan’s Island, and Brian from Swan’s to Frenchboro. They were awarded the contract, which begins October 17.
A victory, to be sure, thanks to lawyers who got the attention of other lawyers. But L.J. is still in the hole financially, so island residents have set up a crowd-funding site for him, collecting as much money as folks are willing to give.
Oh, and the lawyers down at Venable, who worked for free, apparently received a shipment of live lobsters—or so the rumor on the island goes.