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When the Neighbors Aren’t Friendly : Community-based mediation keeps disputes from becoming a federal case

A character in a Robert Frost poem thought good fences made good neighbors. Nowadays, with people living closer together, maybe soundproofing would help too. And for those still unable to stay away from each other’s throats, there are an increasing number of mediation programs, which may be the best solution of all.

These programs certainly deserve to be better known and more widely used. Neighborhoods throughout Southern California are suffering under a morass of litigation and counter-litigation, misunderstanding and misgivings. The only people benefitting from all the conflict irresolution are the lawyers. There must be a better way.

There is. What are officially called alternative dispute resolution programs operate in Los Angeles and Orange counties to provide mediators for quarrels between landlords and tenants, neighbors and members of different ethnic groups, among others. The idea is wonderful. Such a program could help in cases like that of the Fullerton man who police say became so upset by barking that he taped shut the mouth of a neighbor’s dog. The dog died; the man now faces a charge of animal cruelty.

The program has worked in Compton, where Samoans angered by a policeman’s fatal shooting of two brothers used the Asian Pacific American Dispute Resolution Center in downtown Los Angeles to help quiet tensions in the community. After two years of mediation, the City of Compton agreed to hire four people to establish programs on police brutality and minority employment. It was a good solution for everyone.

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The mediation programs sponsored by L.A. and Orange counties are run by volunteers from nonprofit agencies, public and private, and are funded by a $3 surcharge on civil court filing fees. Users pay little, if anything.

Orange County started its program a year ago and, after training the volunteers, is working to publicize it. Unfortunately, Los Angeles County had to cut its budget for the five-year-old program after overestimating how much revenue the $3 fees would produce.

Mediation is cheaper and faster than using the overburdened courts. It may also provide more timely justice. As people increasingly crowd in on each other, making the dog’s barking sound louder and the neighbor’s uncovered garbage can smell worse, mediation will bring help for those who answer “no” to Rodney G. King’s question, “Can we all just get along?”


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