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Talk Is Cheap, and Also Valuable : Dispute Resolution Process Gains Popularity by Avoiding High Cost of Long Legal Battles

August 22, 1993|DIANE SEO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SOUTHEAST AREA — 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 recently. 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.

The case had already been through the courts. In May, 1992, a jury deadlocked in favor of acquitting Alfred F. Skiles Jr., 44, of shooting Pouvi and Itali Tualaulelei a total of 19 times, mostly in their backs. Prosecutors sought to have Skiles retried on two counts of voluntary manslaughter in the deaths, but in June a Superior Court judge refused to order a new trial. Skiles took a medical retirement from the force, citing stress. The outcome of the case enraged the Samoan community.

As the public has grown increasingly unhappy with the time and money required to send a case through the judicial system, many individuals, groups and businesses are trying other ways to resolve their problems.

"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 Los Angeles 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 an 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.

"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."

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

After Officer Skiles shot Pouvi and Itali Tualaulelei "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-financed 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.

Los Angeles 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.

For example, the Dispute Resolution Service for the Long Beach Courthouse helps resolve matters that are referred by judges. If a dispute has not reached court, it would probably be handled by the Community Mediation Program in Lakewood.

Although more people are using alternative dispute resolution to resolve such issues as landlord-tenant disagreements or roommate problems, officials say budget cuts are jeopardizing the county's programs.

Since 1990, the county's dispute resolution budget has been slashed 40%, from $2.5 million to $1.5 million, according to county figures. Officials at the county-funded agencies, which resolved more than 6,100 cases last fiscal year, say the budget cuts are forcing them to turn away clients because the agencies do not have the staff to process all the requests.

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