A quarter-century of talking things out

Jeffco mediators offer kinder and less costly way to end disputes

Matthew Van Deventer
Special to Colorado Community Media
Posted 12/24/18

Instead of spending time in courtrooms and money on lawyers to settlea conflict, Jefferson County residents have another option at their disposal: mediation. This year marks the 25th anniversary of …

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A quarter-century of talking things out

Jeffco mediators offer kinder and less costly way to end disputes

Posted

Instead of spending time in courtrooms and money on lawyers to settle
a conflict, Jefferson County residents have another option at their disposal: mediation.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of Jefferson County Mediation
Services, a volunteer-based program that provides mediation and conflict resolution services to Jefferson County residents, courts, and municipalities and agencies. Having resolved 23,000 conflicts in its 25 years, JCMS has significantly unburdened the county court system, saving it and Jeffco residents both time and money.

“Between cost savings and cost avoidance, typically, we’re saving
more than we cost,” said Mark Loye, the executive director of JCMS who also helped found the program in 1994.    

The program has an office staff of five full and part-time employees and more than 200 volunteer mediators who last year handled 1,462 cases. The contract, according to JCMS’s 2017 report, cost the county $288,510. It went to Oval Options LLC., a private mediation firm in Wheat Ridge; the JCMS contract has followed Loye since its inception and in 2009 he bought into Oval Options.

JCMS estimates it donated more than $470,000 hours of mediation
services last year based on $120 an hour, the lower end of what a mediator for hire may charge, and claims to have saved the county $162,850.

Mediation inception

They’ve come a long way. Loye said they started with only 10 experienced
mediators, 10 trainees, and handled 69 cases in the first year. When they started taking on small claims court cases the following year that number jumped significantly and, according to Loye, they cleared up the two-month long backlog.

Loye said the program really got started when the Jefferson County
animal control director at the time, the late Suzanne Bierbrauer, asked him to offer mediation services because of the high volume of neighbor to neighbor conflicts involving noisy dogs. Loye had been working full time for the county facilitating gravel jobs
and mediating large group conflicts between citizens and applicants. JCMS’s three founders, Loye, Bierbrauer and now Colorado State Supreme Court Justice, Brian Boatright, based the model off of CDR Associates in Boulder where Loye was trained in mediation. They would have a small, paid staff and a large stable of volunteers.

In 1993 Loye recalled that his full-time job was “uncreated” and he was offered a 40-hour a month contract to launch the mediation services. The district attorney and sheriff at the time both contributed $5,000, on top of what he was getting paid by the county, so he could train 10 mediators and get himself a computer.

The founder put an ad in the papers looking for mediators to train. He ended up getting 10 experienced mediators and 10 trainees, accidentally giving way to JCMS’s co-mediation training method that they still use today.

Each JCMS mediator must complete a 40-hour mediation course from
an accredited organization, pass a background check, and go through 100 hours of supervised training. While anyone in Colorado can start charging for mediation services fresh out of their 40-hour course, only after 100 hours of supervised training are they added to the MAC’s, or Mediation Association of Colorado’s, list of professional mediators, as well as JCMS’s list of experienced mediators.

Mediators handle a variety of cases from neighbor to neighbor disputes to domestic violence situations. Notable cases in 2017 include a four-month-long case in 2017 that addressed parking congestion around Lakewood High School and a mental health summit where 15 mediators facilitated small group discussions. In 2014 JCMS volunteers and Jefferson County Open Space explored the idea of a public shooting range. They also facilitate discussions between citizens and law enforcement so both parties can better understand each other. Right now the Jefferson County Sheriff’s department and Wheat Ridge Police Department are the only two branches participating.

According to the program’s 2017 report, the county avoids the most costs in small claims court—last year Jefferson County saved $67,000.

“When I get the assistance of mediation services, mostly they are able to settle cases probably in the range of a fifty to sixty percent success rate, taking cases that are really in a clogged up docket as is,” said Magistrate Joel Schaefer, who presides over small claims court.

Schaefer said he’ll schedule twice the number of cases he thinks he can actually get to in a single session, full well knowing there will be mediators ready to take about half of them.

“When the parties can agree on their own terms for a settlement or stipulation, it’s really a lot better than me telling them what the judgment is and what the outcome will be,” he continued.  

The process

Mediating can be a sort of compliment to someone’s current profession.

Brian Ward was a full-time pilot, flying a small business jet. 10 years ago he was first exposed to mediation work when he took a course in Washington D.C. with his union. In 2015 he got a master’s degree in negotiation and dispute resolution from Creighton University and took the forty-hour course.

Today he spends more time on the ground advocating for his pilot union and as a peer mediator, representing individual pilots and grievances.

“I think people, when given the opportunity, can come to better solutions for themselves than when the solution’s imposed by an outside source,” explained Ward.

Long-term, Ward thinks mediation helps people build and improve often strained relationships. As a JCMS volunteer, Ward takes on a lot of small claims court cases. He’s seen people in court at odds with each other, only to leave mediation willing to work together.

To Ward, mediating means helping both parties come up with a “menu” of solutions so they can choose the best option for both of them. “They bring the issues, I bring the process.”

Joel Bogen has handled just about every case there is as a volunteer and through his private firm. Bogen said he feels like he’s been a mediator all of his life working through a variety of jobs including teaching Spanish at Metro State University for the last 11 years. In 2007 he took an official leap into mediation by training at the Colorado Bar Association and chose to do 100 cases before doing private work.

“Mediators are born, not made. They can be enhanced, but you have to have a basic personality to do well,” said Bogen, who has done more protection order cases, also known as a restraining orders, than any other type of case.

A lot of what mediators do is help the parties involved come to their own conclusions.

“If there’s domestic violence involved and we can help people to act in their best interest to structure a settlement that will keep people safe, well gee, that’s really important,” said Bogen.

If it appears the mediation isn’t effective or there’s a dangerous situation, the mediator can be more direct. But for the most part, they don’t get involved in the conversation. Bogen stressed that they guide the process by asking the right questions so that each party eventually builds out what they want to see in a final deal.

Bogen continued. “In our society, there’s too much of a win-lose situation ... I would rather create a win-win where everyone gets something out of it.”

When kids are involved

JCMS handles more child support services cases like parenting time (also known as custody) and support modification than any other kind of case, 300 per year, according to Loye. They are also the bulk of Marta Cary-Skovrinski’s 250 JCMS assignments. In her private practice, she works mostly on workplace conflicts and professional coaching.

Before her mediating career, Cary-Skovrinski was an independent marketing consultant and said it was “jaw-dropping” how dysfunctional companies were. Her client list evaporated when the Recession hit and she decided she’d get into conflict resolution.

In 2011 she received a master’s degree in negotiation and dispute resolution from Creighton University and completed her 40-hour mediation course at Metro State University. The mediation course, said Cary-Skovrinski, is all academic, but students leave the course with  “just enough to be dangerous because you’re hopping right in the middle of people’s most difficult conversations.”

In child support cases, tensions can run high. A lot of the times it’s between two parents in a difficult relationship are deciding who gets how much time with their child and who pays what.

It is in those cases that JCMS’s co-mediation training method can also be beneficial.

Usually, JCMS pairs a man and woman up to mediate cases, which Cary-Skovrinski said, “is very helpful because men and women hear very different things.” Women mediators are more intuned to any underlying information pertaining to the relationship that may only come out in the conversation’s subtext, while men are better at keeping easily derailed conversations on track.

In today’s heated climate, Cary-Skovrinski thinks mediation is needed now more than ever. The courts can’t and shouldn’t be handling every single argument: “And with the political climate we’re in, people are angry out there ... We can only make things better one conversation at a time.”

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