'No place like it' DRC opens in new location

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Visitors invited to Sept. 15 tour

By Jo Mathis

Legal News

Nancy Soderholm has been a volunteer with the Dispute Resolution Center since 2000, the year she retired as a school psychologist.

She had seen how peer mediation worked in the schools, and has been amazed by how well it works time after time to help citizens of Washtenaw and Livingston counties resolve their issues.

"I cannot be effusive enough in my praise of the services the DRC provides, especially in this economy," said the Plymouth resident. "The DRC allows people access to a highly trained support service, and anything that helps people resolve issues in a peaceful way is invaluable."

The DRC is a non-profit organization that's helped thousand of residents avoid expensive litigation and court time by coming to a resolution guided by trained volunteer mediators such as Soderholm.

A move this summer from downtown Ann Arbor to the campus of the Washtenaw County Service Center at Hogback and Washtenaw means there is now more space as well as free parking and easier access for Ypsilanti residents.

Executive Director Belinda Dulin said she was often surprised when people refused to participate in a mediation because they didn't want the parking and traffic hassles downtown.

"They became true barriers for us to get our work done for the community," she said. "The thought of being in the hustle and bustle of downtown was overwhelming. So even resolving a matter with your neighbor took second seat to getting stuck in traffic in downtown Ann Arbor."

More spacious quarters means the staff can talk privately with potential clients and others.

The DRC now has access to conference rooms and office space in three buildings on the Service Center campus, which means more mediations can be accommodated during the business day.

The 130 volunteers conduct about 500 mediations each year for Washtenaw and Livingston county residents. These volunteers represent a range of professions and backgrounds so that staff can select a mediation team best able to help people involved in a variety of conflicts ranging from domestic relations, estate disputes, neighbor disputes, landlord/tenant issues, special education IEPs, etc.

The DRC handles small claims cases referred by all three district courts in Washtenaw County, and domestic relations and probate cases referred by circuit court. If not for the DRC mediation, most of those cases would need to go to court for a decision from a judge or magistrate.

And cases involving individuals who call about problems with neighbors, contractors or others would continue to fester and be unresolved, said Dulin.

Washtenaw County District Court Judge Cedric Simpson said the DRC saves the county a lot of money, and the courts, a lot of traffic.

"They're great people, and they deserve so much more credit than they get," said Simpson, who refers all of his small claims cases to the DRC for mediation, as well as some civil cases such as neighbor disputes. "The number of disputes they resolve that would be bogging down our court system is incredible. They lessen the burden on the court system to take care of other matters and save a great deal of taxpayer money."

He said the DRC reflects the direction the practice of law is going and how disputes are resolved.

The DRC's settlement rate is at 67 percent, with the others referred back to the referring source, whether it's a family agency, judge, or magistrate.

But even then, judges report that those cases not settled by the DRC are easier to rule upon because so much work has been done at the table.

And sometimes the case is dismissed, said Dulin, because following mediation parties may consider the proposals that were raised, re-visited their own positions, and settled after the mediation but before the next court date.

Attorney Jerold Lax is an advisory board member, arbitrator and mediator.

"I not only find the work interesting but regard it as an effective way to resolve disputes in a less expensive and quicker manner than is often required for litigation," said Lax. "The DRC provides a valuable service in administering the mediation process for the community."

The independent non-profit DRC receives most of its funding comes from Michigan's Office of Dispute Resolution.

The DRC has a partnership with the Sheriff Department's Street Outreach Team, and has trained three civilians charged with addressing potentially criminal or assaultive behavior before it happens.

"They're helping community members look at the problem, and not the person they're angry with; to calm down and think of other options," said Mediation Services Coordinator Margaret Rohr. "They're definitely being a conflict resolver and in some ways, a pseudo mediator."

Zena Zumeta, a private mediator in Ann Arbor who is on the DRC advisory board, says the DRC is the only place one can go for mediation regardless of income or issue.

She said she admires the DRC's outreach efforts, which sends mediators out into the community to work with schools and courts.

"If we didn't have the Dispute Resolution Center, there'd be no place to go," said Zumeta, who refers people to the DRC who can't afford her services, as well as broader community cases such as those involving religious organizations and schools. "It's there for anyone who has a dispute. There's no place like it."

Published: Mon, Sep 10, 2012

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