Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - July 29, 2011

Board of Contributors: Mediation program raises Palo Alto's 'mellow/Yelp' score

by Jeff Blum

We are lucky to live in Palo Alto where the weather is sublime and the restaurants are superb (check Yelp's reviews of Palo Alto restaurants).

There is more to Palo Alto's reputation for being a wonderful place to live or work. Take, for example, Palo Alto's Mellowness. What helps make it a mellow place to live is the Palo Alto Mediation Program. This program is so great it ought to be expanded. Mediation could be offered in situations where parents have a substantial dispute with their teenager. The police and school officials who deal with these disputes could strongly encourage parents and the teen to show up and at least listen to our opening statement. Most people then are willing to engage and continue with mediation, which is successful most of the time.

OK, maybe this idea is a bit intrusive of family relationships or over the top, or both.

Yet our community has been made more civil thanks in part to the good work of the Palo Alto Mediation Program for the past 30 years. I learned some of the program's history courtesy of Lynn Torin, who was involved in mediation on behalf of Palo Alto's Human Relations Commission and has written a summary of its history.

The Palo Alto Mediation Program is a group of city-appointed volunteers trained in mediation. When it was created by the Human Relations Commission only a few requests for mediation were made per year. As requests grew a commission task force was set up to respond to the growing need, called the Rental Housing Mediation Task Force (RHMTF, pronounced "rum tough"). During the 1980s requests for mediation expanded, including any area other than those within the purview of the City Council or the Police Department. The name of the task force was changed to Mediation Task Force to reflect this change. Later, "task force" was dropped since the group's sole purpose was to mediate, although its role later expanded. In addition to mediating, the group promoted mediation and helped with training and workshops. Eventually it became the Palo Alto Mediation Program.

Palo Alto residents know of "the Palo Alto Process" — the opportunity to participate extensively in meetings of the school board, City Council, planning commission and Human Relations Commission so they can speak their minds (often at length and more than once) to help move the governing process and the city forward. It often works, in time. Surveys consistently show that we Palo Altans like our city and the way it operates. If you converted these surveys to Yelp scores, the city's would be high.

Just as our boards and commissions give us an opportunity to speak our minds and participate in the process, the Palo Alto Mediation Program gives landlords, tenants, neighbors, business owners, business customers, employers and employees that same opportunity to speak their minds and peacefully work out their differences. This builds our community.

Many of the 150 or so cases that the Palo Alto Mediation Program opens each year are successfully resolved, frequently resulting in written agreements between the parties.

People who collaboratively work out their differences often establish and sometimes expand upon fruitful relationships.

In a successful Palo Alto Mediation Program mediation that I participated in involving a former disgruntled terminated employee and his employer the parties ended their session by agreeing to collaborate with one another on future projects.

In another successful mediation neighbors were able to resolve their dispute over a flooding problem occurring on one neighbor's property that was allegedly due to conditions existing on the other neighbor's property.

These success stories show the contributions of the Palo Alto Mediation Program to maintaining the stability and happiness of the community at large.

Thus, just as the Palo Alto Process does, the Palo Alto Mediation Program also increases Palo Alto's mellow/Yelp score.

Next time you fill out one of those resident surveys about satisfaction with Palo Alto services, remember to give some credit to the Palo Alto Mediation Program. Have your teenage kids fill out these things, too, even if you think it might lead to an argument between you and your teen. (There's always mediation.)

Jeff Blum, a family law attorney practicing in Palo Alto, is a former member of the Palo Alto Human Relations Commission and of the Palo Alto YMCA board. He can be emailed at Blumesq@aol.com.

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