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Program gets neighbors to talk it out

City-contracted effort trains mediators to help settle disputes
by: JIM CLARK, Volunteer Annmarie Phelan leaves a phone message for a client while volunteer coordinator Stuart Watson updates the case board in the phone room of Resolutions Northwest, an organization that the city contracts with to train volunteer mediators.

Crash is a 13-year-old Mount Tabor cat. Very much loved, but very much unconcerned about human property lines. So Crash had a tendency to crash, so to speak, in the next door neighbor’s yard. And, periodically, to defecate there. Which made Crash not very popular with the neighbor. And which caused relations between that neighbor and Crash’s owner — middle school teacher Barbara Kutasz — to deteriorate so much that the two of them pretty much stopped talking to each other. “I wanted to be a good neighbor, but when we tried to work it out … it was too emotional,” Kutasz says. “When a pet’s involved, it gets emotional.” Which is where a special city of Portland program came in. It has come in — in at least some neighborhood disputes — for more than two decades now. Each year, the program trains and coordinates a group of two dozen or so people who do volunteer mediation of neighborhood disputes. Their jobs: to try to get Portland neighbors to talk to each other again, and to somehow, peacefully, resolve their differences. About the barking dogs. About the cars routinely blocking driveways. About the wandering and defecating cats. They may sound like issues that could be resolved without mediators, but often, they are not. And sometimes, they create worse problems down the road, longtime mediators say. “So often in life, we’re just moving so fast and we’re impacting each other constantly, and we don’t have a place to work those things out,” volunteer mediator Amber Boydston says. “So mediation creates that space.” The program has existed in Portland for more than 20 years now. During the last five years, the city has contracted the coordination of the volunteer mediation program to the Portland nonprofit Resolutions Northwest. The city pays for the program through a $276,000 annual contract with Resolutions Northwest. That contract covers the mediation services, as well as facilitation services for neighborhood associations and facilitation for the Community Residential Siting Program — for example, the siting of a new mental health facility in the city. Each year, more than 80 Portlanders apply to be volunteer mediators in the program. Officials with Resolutions Northwest pick about 30 or 40 to invite in for interviews. Then, with an eye toward establishing a group that is diverse in age, gender, race and in other ways, they select 20 to 24 people to go through the training, says Betsy Coddington, Resolution Northwest’s executive director. The volunteers then take a 32-hour training course on basic mediation, and pledge to do 100 hours of mediation work during the year. “It’s an enormous commitment on their part,” Coddington says. Much of the mediation work doesn’t end up being face-to-face mediation between the warring neighbors, Coddington and the mediators say. Much of the work happens on the phone, as the volunteers talk with the person who wants the mediation, then separately try to coax the neighbor to participate. Often, but not always, the mediators are able to persuade the other side to participate. “Conflict is stressful for people,” says Jamie Waltz, who just finished training to be a volunteer mediator. “I’ve never met anybody who loves to be in conflict.” Many of the conflicts are then resolved through a series of phone calls between the mediator and the two sides. Why can’t that happen without a mediator? “I think sometimes the situation gets so escalated,” says Christina Albo, who coordinates the mediation program for Resolutions Northwest. “They feel the person’s not listening to them. They misunderstand each other’s intentions.” And it’s almost never simply about the barking dog. “I think it’s always something deeper,” Boydston says. “Someone’s morals and values have been challenged, unbeknownst to the other person, and all of it stems from that.” Sometimes, it’s about changing Portland neighborhoods — about gentrification or population density or something else, says Mark Fulop, a Multnomah County official who also is a volunteer mediator and Resolutions Northwest board member. “Even the most simple (conflict) … as people present their story, it becomes about ‘This neighborhood was this way 40 years ago and now it’s changing.’ ” Fulop says. But the mediation “gives people a chance to tell their story in a safe way.” Most often, the mediation helps, Coddington says. The two sides often walk away with a written agreement on how to resolve their dispute, or a verbal agreement, with an understanding of what each side promises to do. The process seemed to work with Crash. Kutasz first contacted the program in November to ask for mediation. After some initial resistance from her neighbor, he also agreed. “We live in a great neighborhood. … He wanted to have peace with the neighbors,” Kutasz says. (Kutasz’s neighbor did not give the program permission to release his name to a Portland Tribune reporter.) After several phone calls, the two met face-to-face, with a mediator and with their spouses, last month. “It went great,” Kutasz says. “It couldn’t have gone better. We reached a resolution within 30 minutes.” While Kutasz says she’s not allowed to discuss details of the final agreement, she says she has purchased a product that keeps Crash out of the neighbor’s yard. Which ended a recent monthslong period of her having to stand in her backyard when Crash was outside, to make sure he didn’t leave her yard, she says. “It’s made an amazing difference in my life,” Kutasz says. “I’m not standing outside with the cat an hour or two a day any more.” This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.