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The Go-Betweens : Fed Up With a Costly Judicial System, an Increasing Number of Individuals and Businesses Are Trying to Resolve Their Disputes With the Help of Trained Mediators, Conciliators and Arbitrators

July 18, 1993

IN FEBRUARY, 1991, AFTER A Compton police officer killed two Samoan brothers while investigating a domestic disturbance, Samoan tribal Chief Tua'au Pele Faletogo knew he had to act fast.

Samoans were "getting ready to burn down Compton," said Faletogo, who summoned other matais , or chiefs, for an emergency meeting.

The chiefs faced a dilemma: How could they demand justice for what the Samoan community perceived as a grave affront without inciting more violence?

"The Polynesian way is that we talk things out," said Faletogo, who contacted the Asian Pacific American Dispute Resolution Center in Downtown Los Angeles for help. "People were very upset and I knew there would be a lot of people hurt unless we resolved it in a peaceful way."

After two years of mediation with representatives of the dispute resolution center and the U.S. Department of Justice, the two parties finally reached an agreement last month. The city of Compton agreed to hire four people to establish programs dealing with such issues as police brutality and the city's minority-hiring practices.

As the public becomes increasingly disgusted with the time and money required to send a case through the judicial system, an increasing number of individuals, groups and businesses are trying to resolve their problems through alternative dispute resolution. The technique holds special promise for Central Los Angeles, where mediation may provide a more effective way of dealing with ethnic disputes and other disagreements before they turn violent.

"Most of us raised in the United States believe that if we have an issue, we take it to court," said Dennis Westbrook, project director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Dispute Resolution Center, which serves South-Central and surrounding communities. "But if we change our mind set around and try collaborative decision-making, we'll be better able to work out solutions to our problems."

Alternative dispute resolution provides an opportunity to work out a mutually acceptable agreement with the help of a trained mediator, conciliator or arbitrator. Both parties must agree to participate.

In mediation, disputants usually meet face to face to resolve their problems at a neutral site. During conciliation, both parties meet individually with a conciliator, who tries to work out a mutually acceptable agreement. Arbitrators hear testimony and then render a judgment.

Through mediation, Crenshaw resident Nora Clay was able to resolve a dispute with a mechanic over the work he had done on her 1985 Cadillac this year.

"The man fixed my car transmission, but it still didn't run good," Clay said. "It broke down, and I had to get it towed."

After a mediator from the city attorney's office stepped in, the mechanic agreed to refund Clay the $1,000 she paid him.

"He came to my house to give me the money, and he wanted to pay me even more than the agreement," Clay said. "He was so nice, I couldn't take the extra money."

"That lady," Clay said of the mediator who handled her case, "boy, she could take care of business. Lord, if we had those kinds of lawyers, the world would be so sweet."

Mediation also helped resolve a dispute at the Estrada Courts housing project in Boyle Heights after tensions erupted between tenants and the project manager. Some tenants believed the manager had been giving preferential treatment to her friends and relatives, said Tom Cross, a mediator in the city attorney's office.

The situation was resolved last fall after a representative from the Los Angeles Housing Authority agreed to send tenants information on how to file a formal complaint.

"The residents had a conflict with how they perceived our policies," said Lucille Morris, the Los Angeles Housing Authority's housing management director, who attended the mediation sessions organized by the city attorney's office. "I felt it worked out well and was a very fair process."

Although Faletogo, the Samoan chief, said he was satisfied with the agreement that was reached with the city of Compton, he said it was very frustrating.

After Officer Alfred F. Skiles Jr. shot Pouvi and Itali Tualaulelei 19 times, "there were hard feelings on both sides," Faletogo said. "The people from the city were on the defensive and the meetings were hitting a cement block," he said.

However, Compton City Manager Howard Caldwell said he never regarded the issues being discussed during mediation as "disputes."

"We just wanted to improve the channels of communication, and the process of having a third party just facilitated that," Caldwell said.

Taxpayer-funded dispute resolution services began in 1986 when a new state law allowed counties to increase civil court filing fees by $3 to fund the programs.

Two years later, Los Angeles County opened eight dispute-resolution centers using trained volunteer mediators. The county now operates 11 centers and charges as much as $50 an hour, depending on the income of the client and the nature of the dispute.

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