Boxes instead of a PO for Winton; Residents will keep their address and 55796 zip code

WINTON City Clerk Ann Jackson, Mayor Kathy Brandau and council members Lee Tessier, Dawn Roe and Adam Masloski at Wednesday’s public meeting on the Post Office controversy. Photo by Nick Wognum.

by Nick Wognum -

The end of Winton having a Post Office has arrived.
The Winton city council approved changing to a box system that will allow residents to keep their address and the 55796 zip code.
At a public meeting Wednesday night, over 50 people filled the Winton community center building.
Mayor Kathy Brandau explained the situation that has led to Winton losing a Post Office. On the phone for part of the meeting was Ely Postmaster Susan Maki.
Bret Janeksela and his wife Jen had operated a Post Office in Winton for 17 years. Both are employees of the USPS, Bret in Ely and now Jen in Soudan.
Last week, with four hours notice, the Postal Service abruptly cancelled the contract with the Janekselas.
The Winton Post Office had been located at the Fat Chicken Feed Store, the historic building that was originally the train depot.
“The United States Postal Service said it was a conflict of interest and because Bret was being paid twice they could come in and close the Post Office like that,” said Brandau. “It was to protect the interest of the Post Service, that’s what I was told.”
“What a crock,” said Mike Banovetz in the audience.
The Janekselas were at the meeting and said afterward they are moving on.
“After 17 years we’re looking forward to taking our first family vacation,” said Bret.
Brandau asked for a round of applause thanking the Janekselas for their service to the community.
“You did a fabulous job, people loved you and we appreciate everything that you’ve done,” said Brandau.
After meeting with Ely Postmaster Susan Maki, Brandau pushed for a Contract Postal Unit, a bank of Post Office boxes on the side of a road where people can pick up their mail.
“I will tell you we are not going to lose our zip code, you are not going to lose your Post Office box number,” said Brandau.
She said the location would be behind the Winton Roadhouse, between the Quonset building and the city garage.
“I rode around with Susan Maki last week and we decided on that location,” said Brandau.
“I asked about city and rural mail delivery and she said absolutely not. That’s not going to happen,” said Brandau.
The location of the bank of 88 boxes generated the most discussion, with some people questioning whether behind the former Winton Liquor Store was a secure location.
“I guess growing up in Winton the Post Office was a way of life here. It was the social hub,” said Sue Scufsa.
“And I feel like Jen and Bret’s life was ripped apart. I like the option of the CPU but boy it would be great to look into a contract post office if there’s any possibility. That’s a social hub. I don’t know if that can happen or not but I do like also the option of the CPU.”
Brandau said it would be up to another business in Winton to take on the Post Office contract. She said her business, Brandau Plumbing, is one that could but that wasn’t an option.
“Mike and I have been here 29 years and we’re ready to retire. So we’re not going to take it on. In the future if my son wanted to do it, that would be different,” said Brandau.
“Could Bret and Jen subcontract in their building?” asked Scufsa.
Maki said the Ely Post Office had nothing to do with the decision on the conflict of interest.
“A contract for a CPO has to be with a business owner, it can’t be their relative and it cannot be a liquor establishment. So if you know anyone they’re more than welcome to apply and find out all the information,” said Maki.
Brandau said the Postal Service would go through the applicant’s financials “and if they saw any kind of hardship in any way they would be denied.”
Resident Scott Kellerman said he was “not real nuts about that” and asked why it couldn’t be placed along Winton’s main thoroughfare.
“Susan said not along the road,” said Brandau.
Winton’s new community center building is located on a large lot that at one time was the home of the Winton Hospital.
“The best place would be right here but who’s going to blacktop that. We’re not going to spend that kind of money,” said Brandau. “Here’s my thought. Let’s get it here, then we can come up with another plan. I think we should start the process.”
Resident Bob Tholen asked if the previous home of the Post Office in Winton, now a private residence could be considered.
Maki said the property has to be city owned and a contract Post Office cannot be in a private residence.
Resident Carl Karasti cited a study that showed a high rate of theft from clustered mail boxes.
“The study showed 52.7% of thefts occurred where multiple boxes are available,” said Karasti.
“They are highly susceptible to theft and vandalism where there is more than one box in one place. In my mind behind the liquor store is relatively convenient, it’s close to the Fat Chicken. But it is also highly subject to these particular kinds of issues,” said Karasti.
“Multiple boxes in close proximity makes it a higher value target for theft and identity theft,” said Karasti.
Brandau said she looked at other areas of city-owned land including the old jail and the Community Center.
“I thought about it here at the Community Center but we rent it out so often. They should have a right to the area and the parking lot. It’s not fair to people renting,” said Brandau.
“It sounds like you have it all settled,” said Marvel Prahl. “Is there any place else well lighted and perhaps on the main street?”
Brandau said the city can ask Minnesota Power to install a light in the area behind the Roadhouse.
Josh Donahue asked about putting the boxes next to the playground area.
“We would have to give up part of the playground,” said clerk Ann Jackson.
Agreeing with Karasti on the theft concerns, Terry Jackson said the area behind the Roadhouse is not the right location.
“I don’t think behind a liquor establishment is appropriate. I think a hard look should go into looking for another spot,” said Terry Jackson.
“The other thing is the conflict of interest and if there is one, it’s been going on for a long time. I honestly believe the citizens of Winton deserve more than to wake up in the morning and hear there’s no postal delivery, hear there’s no public hearing. I think the Postal Service had an obligation to be here and they failed. I’m not blaming Sue and her staff. I think the citizens of Winton deserve more that that,” said Jackson.
His comments were greeted with a round of applause.
“Bret knew about this for a long time. He knew there was a conflict of interest and so did the previous postmaster,” said Maki over a phone speaker.
“Somebody along the line was not being truthful. My office had nothing to do with this. The Ely Post Office had nothing to do with it and it’s very unfortunate but I cannot change the circumstances. I’m very sorry for your experience with it,” said Maki.
Banovetz asked for clarification on the conflict of interest charge.
Karasti questioned the term and said, “The contract states ‘generally’ people who have a contract do not also work for the Post Office. Generally is a word subject to interpretation.”
Karasti said the city could facilitate a process to look at the contract and keep the community Post Office.
Maki said she couldn’t comment on the contract or on Bret Janeksela and cited confidentiality concerns since he is an employee of the Ely Post Office.
Brandau told the crowd she tried to contact officials with the Postal Service in Minneapolis or Denver and was told no.
“Sounds like a government conspiracy to me,” said Banovetz.
“It’s hard to understand but we’re dealing with the U.S. government, that’s all I can say,” said Brandau.
Karasti asked that the concerns over the contract be addressed by someone higher up in the Postal Service.
Maki said she wrote down the concerns voiced at the meeting and would look into them further.
At the end of the public discussion the council passed a motion to go with the bank of boxes but did not choose a location.
Brandau said during the meeting that box holders would continue to get their mail in Ely for the next two to three weeks.
Donna Meier said she went to the Ely Post Office to pick up her mail on her lunch hour and had to wait in line 20 minutes. When she got to the front, she was told she didn’t have any mail that day.
“I’m appreciative of the solution,” said Hoover. “I can still stop at the Fat Chicken to visit with Bret and Jen.”
Brandau said the cluster box system will provide new benefits.
“You’ll be able to mail a letter or get your mail any time, day or night, 24/7 which you couldn’t do before,” said Brandau.
Residents will not be charged to have a box, according to Brandau. Maki said two keys per box will be provided.
“Life goes on, change happens and I think Jen and Bret made the right decision. It was made because of their family, that’s what they had to do. They made the right choice.”
What residents will no longer be able to do without a contract Post Office includes buying stamps or money orders, mail out packages or even receive larger packages.
“There is a drop box for letter. If you get a package, there will be some parcel boxes big enough for certain sized packages. If you get a package there will be a key in your box and you will be able to open a larger box that has just your package in it. The key will then remain in the lock,” said Brandau.
“Say there’s 20 packages, you’ll get a card to pick it up in Ely. You’ll have to buy stamps in Ely, mail packages in Ely but you will get your mail in Winton,” said Brandau.
Residents also voiced concerns with trying to have packages from Amazon or Office Max delivered to their homes since Winton addresses are not in the USPS database.
“That’s not an issue we’re going to resolve tonight,” said Brandau.
She said the council will look into putting up a security system at the new box location to address theft concerns.
Karasti asked if during the transition the Winton Post Office could be reopened.
“I can answer that, yesterday I brought the boxes to the Ely Post Office,” said Bret Janeksela.
There was discussion about winter weather putting snow and ice on the boxes.
“I’m hoping they’ll provide a canopy,” Brandau said of the Postal Service.
“That would be nice for the smokers at the liquor store,” joked Kellerman.
“We don’t want that,” said Brandau.
“If a private business ran their business the way the U.S. Postal Service runs, they’d be out of business,” said Kellerman.
The motion to approve the contract postal unit included a stipulation suggested by Joe Mertel to retain current Post Office box numbers and the Winton zip code.
Brandau, Jackson, Lee Tessier, Dawn Roe and Adam Masloski all voted in favor of the motion.