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THE SAFETY ZONE | JERRY HICKS

Bickerers Might Try Mediators

November 16, 1998|JERRY HICKS

Ever have neighbors you loathed so much you wished they'd just hit the lottery and move away? What to do when you can't get along with those across the fence?

A recent column on neighborhood disputes brought in lots of calls from people who hate the people next door. But one caller offered a helping hand.

She is Barbara Hunt, and she's one of two neighbor dispute mediators for the Orange County Human Relations Commission. I had to admit I didn't know the commission took on such chores.

"Most people don't," Hunt said. "But getting neighbors to get along with each other is part of our mission of making Orange County a safer, better place to live."

A neighbor's youngsters are making too much noise. The tree next door is dropping unwelcome leaves in your yard. The commission is often called in as a third party to help such neighbors learn to get along.

The more serious disputes usually call for mediation; the two sides sit down to air their differences with Hunt or her colleague, Alfonso Clarke. Sometimes, neighbors solve the problem by using the commission go-between without ever meeting face to face.

"We don't offer solutions," Hunt said. "What we do is get the two sides engaged in dialogue. Sometimes they're so angry they refuse to talk to each other. We get them to listen to the other side."

And if there's anything she's learned on the job, Hunt said, it's that there are two sides to every dispute. So don't expect the commission to become your advocate just because you are the one to call first.

Clarke had a recent case in which a self-appointed neighborhood captain kept calling the police on a neighbor for minor infractions. The target happened to be the only renter on the block.

That referral, like many, came from a police department. Its officers were tired of making the same runs to that neighborhood to settle minor disagreements.

Some problems arise from misunderstandings. In a current situation, for example, a group of parents whose children attend a private neighborhood dance class helped raise money for special dresses for a show. They thought their daughters would own the dresses, but the dance instructor says no, the dresses were meant to be used for future classes. The commission has calmed the waters enough that a solution is expected soon.

Some problems are cultural differences. On the other hand, Clarke said, sometimes people perceive a cultural divide when "the real problem is the different way people were raised, regardless of their cultural background."

The commission gets calls for help daily. Hunt says the vast majority result in a satisfactory compromise. But not always. Sometimes the two parties still wind up in court.

So if you and your neighbor are anywhere close to taking up knives, maybe the Human Relations Commission is an option. You can try it at (714) 567-7470.

A final note: I got a good lesson not long ago about how our neighbors don't always see us the way we think they do. At a yard sale near my home, the owner refused to accept a check from a neighbor for some items he wanted to buy.

"We've lived right next door to each other for 15 years, and you won't take my check?" the visitor asked.

The owner responded: "In 15 years, you've been over here exactly twice, both times to borrow something. No, I won't take your check."

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