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Mediators help find creative ways to resolve legal disputes in turbulent times

A local nonprofit is looking into the future as it celebrates four decades of helping individuals and families find creative solutions to some of society’s most stressful issues.

Working with limited space and a modest budget, the Mediation Center of the Pacific relies on thousands of volunteer hours annually to provide options for Hawaii residents who otherwise might not have access to legal remedies.

“They’re people issues,” Executive Director Tracey Wiltgen says, describing cases involving divorce, child custody, care for elderly relatives, landlord-tenant disputes and civil rights, all of which are candidates for mediation.

“Mediation’s immediate impact is that it keeps cases out of the courts, saving the court system time and money,” she says. “It resolves problems in a less-adversarial manner.”

Mediation also has social and financial value that goes far beyond immediate savings. A study commissioned by the MCP for Fiscal Year 2016 found that the $850,000 invested in the center’s annual budget generated net value of more than $7.4 million for the community. The findings took into account such long-term consequential benefits as reduced medical expenses, higher tax revenue, savings in support costs for potentially homeless families, and lower costs for law enforcement and the courts.

Mediation differs from arbitration in that an arbitrator makes a final and binding decision after hearing evidence in a case, acting somewhat like a judge or jury. Mediators help opposing parties find common ground to reach a mutual agreement. It is then up to the parties to make the agreement work.

The Mediation Center of the Pacific handled 1,705 cases in 2018, with 1,160 proceeding to mediation – the others either were settled quickly or remained active in 2019. Approximately half of the 1,160 mediated cases ended in signed agreements by the opposing parties.

The MCP specializes in domestic cases involving lower-income residents, and Wiltgen says the success rate varies by type of case. Approximately 85 percent of civil rights cases are resolved through mediation, but the success rate drops to about 40 percent for small-claims cases.

Even those that are not resolved have value for the opposing parties, Wiltgen says.

“Mediation is always an appropriate first step,” she told me during my visit the the center’s Kukui Street offices at the edge of Chinatown. “There’s nothing to lose, and there’s always a benefit.”

The Mediation Center of the Pacific is not the only mediation service in town. Many law firms have mediators on staff who handle larger, more complex disputes involving businesses and more affluent residents. The MCP charges according to a sliding scale and its fees represent only a tiny fraction of its $850,000 annual budget. It generates most of its revenue through government contracts and grants, annual fundraising events, and training classes for other organizations.

In addition to MCP’s eight-person staff, the key to its financial stability is its base of approximately 150 mediators who work pro bono, providing their services free of charge.

MCP mediators do not need to be licensed attorneys. In fact, they represent a broad cross section of the local community – educators, social workers, counselors, business executives, real estate agents, construction workers, even a baker and beautician.

They receive 100 hours of training before they are allowed to mediate a case and they continue to take classes to upgrade their skills. Those who handle at least five cases a year are considered to be “active” mediators.

Wiltgen says mediators are trained to perform four functions: listen to each side, talk with each side, help the opposing sides find creative options for resolving disputes, and negotiate a settlement. What they cannot do is take sides or offer their own opinions on who is or is not to blame. Copies of mediated settlements are signed by the parties, but not by the mediator.

That said, Wiltgen says the mediators are seeing more stress and anger from those seeking mediation, often to the point that the opposing sides won’t meet in the same room. The center will not take cases that involve a history of violence.

“Our goal is to make them as comfortable as possible,” she says.

She added that persons who want to learn more about becoming a mediator can contact Nathan Nikaido, mediator manager, at nathan@mediatehawaii.org.

Wiltgen, who still mediates some cases, didn’t set out for a career in resolving disputes when she earned bachelors and masters degrees in speech pathology and communications from Gonzaga University and the University of Hawaii, respectively. While working as a speech pathologist in Hawaii’s public school system she was called as an expert witness and reasoned that there must be better ways to resolve disputes.

She went on to earn a law degree from the UH William S. Richardson School of Law and in 1993 began volunteering with what was then known as the Neighborhood Justice Center of Makiki, which was founded in 1979. She joined the staff as director of training two years later and became its executive director in 1999, the same year it changed its name to the Mediation Center of the Pacific.

Wiltgen says that as the center celebrates its four decades in business under two different names, the staff, its board of directors and its advisory board are doing what they train their mediators to do: look to the future, assess the options, and find creative solutions. The center needs more space and needs to be a more visible part of the community, she says.

“We need to do a better job of telling people how to access our services,” she says. “Regular folks don’t think about using us.”

To that end, the staff and board members held strategic planning sessions earlier this year and are drafting an action plan. Stay tuned, Wiltgen says.

Contact Mediation of the Pacific Executive Director Tracey Wiltgen at tracey@mediatehawaii.org.

In this monthly feature, former newspaper editor and columnist Jim George visits with organizations that make up Hawaii’s not-for-profit community. He can be reached at jamesrgeorge@hawaii.rr.com.

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