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REGION : Got a Dispute? County Service Helps Settle It

October 06, 1994|MARY GUTHRIE

Sheriff's deputies receive a call about an armed man in a quiet residential neighborhood. They find the man, but there's no gun. A decade-long neighborhood feud has turned into a tattling match, and the deputies are caught in the middle--with guns drawn.

Because the neighbor called the police, and the falsely accused man knows it, police officials fear the dispute might escalate.

"This particular incident could have resulted in a really volatile situation," said Sgt. Henry Davis.

Davis recommended that the neighbors call Voluntary Mediation Services, a county program to help people resolve conflicts.

Escorted by Davis, Jean Salk, who heads the local mediation office, visited the neighborhood and talked to both neighbors. Eventually they worked out their differences.

Salk supervises 40 trained volunteers based in the San Pedro Service Center. In both English and Spanish, they mediate everything from divorce settlements to ruined laundry and barking dogs. Funds for the program come from a reserve collected from civil court filing fees. Referrals to the program come from courts, law enforcement agencies and city officials. But anyone can call for an appointment to settle a dispute.

In the South Bay, Salk's team handles disputes for residents of San Pedro, Wilmington, Carson, the Palos Verdes Peninsula and Lomita. They also refer people to similar services in other areas.

Typically the agency works on disagreements between landlords and tenants, employees and their bosses, and consumers and companies. They can also help settle divorce disputes.

The most important thing, Salk said, is that the mediators don't take sides in the quarrels.

"What we're concerned with is the process of getting the people to communicate," Salk said. When the communication works, she said, a solution usually follows. By her estimate, 90% of the time, people who attend mediation come to some agreement.

The mediator's creativity helps people resolve their differences without going to court, Salk says. Sometimes, for instance, people can use barter to settle the dispute.

A landlord may offer to replace carpeting in exchange for prompt payment of back rent. A store owner who put the wrong dress on layaway might give store credit for other merchandise rather than demanding payment for the unwanted dress.

It's the emotion in disputes that often creates an impasse, Salk said.

"We can turn the words around and get the message across without the emotion," Salk says.

Mediation services are offered at no charge, and the meetings are confidential.

Davis said if more people use mediation, it could be a big help to the Sheriff's Department.

The mediation services can be reached at (310) 519-6248.

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