My friend Bernice is having a neighbor issue. The house directly across the street from her's is overgrown with weeds, dead cars lie about in the back yard, and garbage is strewn throughout the yard. She's about to put her house on the market, and she feels the eyesore across the street is going to cost her a lot of money. Bernice tried to talk to the crusty old widower who lives there about it. He grumbled something like, "My land... do what I want with it," before he closed the door on her. She sent him a letter offering to pay for a crew to come and clean up the yard. She got no response. She baked cookies and left them with a "Please call" note on his doorstep. The next day she found the uneaten cookies and unopened letter on her own doorstep. "I'm at wit's end over this," she told me as we sipped margaritas on my deck. As she spoke, I recalled that I had an aunt back East who got help from a professional mediator to settle a fence issue she was having with her next-door neighbor. I told Bernice I'd make a few calls and find her one. "Mediation has always been needed," offered Robin Seigle, director of the business center at the National Conflict Resolution Center (619-238-2400). "For people to have disputes is not new. Often the problem for two people in interacting with each other is that there is not someone neutral who runs the meeting, makes sure that each person gets to hear what the other has to say, and be heard. We are a neutral provider of service. We talk to people about what their issues are, explore with them what their situation is and the various alternatives and choices they may have. We are not going to report anything to the police, and we are not mandated reporters like psychologists."
Seigle says the company mediates for all kinds of issues. "We offer just about everything. Our community division handles neighbor/neighbor mediations, landlord/tenant, consumer/merchant, parent/teen, elder care, roommates, and any other kind of family relationship. Our business center covers divorce and any kind of commercial dispute. We do personal injury, probate, real estate, homeowner association, construction defect, environmental, and land use."
How does the process work?
"With a neighbor case, the person leaves their name and phone number. A case coordinator will then call the person who has an issue. We'll find out who the other person is, what the issues are, and discuss with them whether or not they have talked to the person about mediation, or is this going to be the first call. There are times when somebody has an issue with someone, and they haven't talked to them. They don't always know that somebody has an issue with them. We can contact the other party to discuss the option of mediation with them and describe what the process is. For more complex cases where the parties have attorneys, it's usually an attorney who calls and arranges it with the other one."
What are some of the neighbor problems that you mediate?
"Noisy parties is a common one," she replied. "There are always issues about parking, people working in their garage late at night, or issues about kids. There are issues about people's landscaping, about trees, and view disputes. Or people concerned about the appearance of their neighbor's property with a lot of clutter and weeds, really the garden-variety things that happen when people live close together."
The mediations take place in sites available throughout the county, says Seigle. And they usually don't last more than a few hours. "The community kind of cases -- neighbor/neighbor, landlord/tenant, consumer/merchant -- those mediations take about three hours. We do mediation at the small claims court, multiple calendars a week, and those are 45-minute mediations. Any kind of more complex case might take a whole day, or more than one day.
"If someone is not willing to mediate" continued Seigle, "we can't force them to mediate. Now there are certain kinds of situations where people are obligated by contract or by law to mediate. A residential real estate contract, for example, has a provision in it that before people can go to court, under certain circumstances, they have to go to mediation, or arbitration."
Satisfaction rate with mediation is high. "It's probably about a 75 percent agreement rate," Seigle says, "and about an 85 percent compliance rate. And satisfaction rate -- people that are satisfied with the process and the experience -- is probably about 90 percent."
What about cost for mediation?
"There is a range of charges." But for a problem like Bernice's, "neighbor-to-neighbor is a $10 administrative fee for the person who initiates and no charge for a mediation. We have a contract to provide services that is funded through superior court filings fees. When people file in superior court, $8 of that is collected and earmarked for alternative dispute resolutions. So we are funded to provide those kinds of mediations."