|Fall Real Estate 2006
Publication Date: Friday, October 13, 2006
Cities offer free mediation
by Dan Shilstone
Palo Alto and Mountain View residents enjoy free access to a range of mediation services through city partnerships with Project Sentinel, a non-profit organization dedicated to resolving housing problems in the Bay Area.
These programs connect residents with knowledgeable, well-trained mediators who can advise them of their rights and obligations, counsel them on the options available for settling their dispute, conduct over-the-phone negotiations between disputing parties, and provide in-person mediation.
The mediation services available in Palo Alto and Mountain View are broad in scope, addressing all varieties of community disputes, including real estate, consumer, workplace and person-to-person conflicts. Any party to a dispute may initiate mediation, and according to Martin Eichner, Project Sentinel's director of dispute resolution, around 50 percent of those who voluntarily seek mediation reach satisfactory solutions through the program.
Eichner also specified that in certain situations, the city of Palo Alto requires that disputing parties try mediation, and 20 of the 27 such mandatory cases last year were resolved successfully outside of the court system.
While solutions reached through mediations are not legally binding, mediators can draft written agreements to clarify any terms reached. According to Eichner, follow-up surveys conducted by Project Sentinel show that 97 percent of agreements reached through mediation provide lasting solutions. Mediators neither suggest nor enforce these solutions, but simply facilitate the discussion process and ensure both parties are hearing each other well enough to come to an understanding. Neutrality and confidentiality are guaranteed.
Mediators must live, work or own property in the community that they serve, and all volunteers undergo 35 hours of training at Foothill College as well as advanced follow-up training throughout the year. All mediations are handled by co-mediation teams, often with new mediators paired with more seasoned mentors.
The statistics maintained by Project Sentinel show that those who have sought mediation through these programs are almost unanimous in their satisfaction with the results, and 100 percent of the participants in Palo Alto's mandatory program last year reported that they would at least consider using the program again in the future, with the great majority saying they would definitely recommend it.
"I am very grateful to have this great resource available to me," said one participant, "and especially because I did not incur any expenses. I am on Social Security disability and I feel extremely fortunate that there is still help out there."
Though happy with the positive results of the mediation programs, Eichner is somewhat concerned that not as many residents are aware of the services as should be. Palo Alto landlords who control two or more properties are required to distribute information on mandatory mediation to their tenants, but the information does not seem to be getting out to everyone.
"We don't see evidence that landlords are giving the notice to tenants that's required by law," said Eichner. In some cases, the landlords themselves remain ignorant of the services. Eichner hopes the city will support further outreach activities in the future to inform both tenants and landlords of their rights and responsibilities under the mandatory mediation ordinance.
Editorial Intern Dan Shilstone can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Palo Alto Mediation Program
Mountain View Mediation Services