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Let's Talk

San Diego's Conflict Resolution Center provides an alternate to court battles.

MAYOR BILL WHITE and Judge Robert Eckels, the top elected officials in Houston and Harris County, respectively, make strange bedfellows. White’s a Democrat, and Eckels is a Republican, and in that part of the country, disputes between the city and the county are as common as hats and cattle. As recently as last December, when White’s name was mentioned as a possible candidate for governor of Texas, Eckels publicly questioned his viability—despite a stellar track record in Houston—telling the Dallas Morning News, “There’s a different set of issues statewide.”

Still, White and Eckels received nationwide praise when they teamed to lead relief efforts for Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. This month, the two reunite here in San Diego to receive Peacemaker Awards during the National Conflict Resolution Center’s Days of Dialogue ceremony. The 18th annual event is March 23 at the Manchester Grand Hyatt.

Bringing two parties to the table to shake hands and smile when they’d just as soon punch each other in the face is what the center is all about, says Steven Dinkin, the nonprofit organization’s president. It’s a kinder, gentler alternative to the courts, more affordable and with a dramatically different approach to conflict resolution.

“A typical court battle is two opposing parties going through the legal process represented by attorneys,” Dinkin says. “It is their dispute, but the parties are disengaged. They have no role in coming up with solutions or a judgment. They sit there while attorneys make presentations; the judge listens, and then renders a decision—you’re right, you’re wrong—and they walk away with great feelings of animosity.”

Parties who choose to settle their disputes through the Conflict Resolution Center have a completely different experience, Dinkin says. “We engage the disputants themselves, and they come up with their own resolutions through a series of questions in which they work out an agreement, so it’s sustainable over time. Quite often, we don’t just settle a case but we also repair a physical relationship so they can coexist.”

The center was founded as the San Diego Mediation Center in 1993 at the instigation of the county bar and the University of San Diego. “The trend toward community-based organizations established to provide mediation services began in the 1970s and has since mushroomed,” says Dinkin, who until two years ago ran a similar service in Washington, D.C.

Today, the National Conflict Resolution Center has a full-time staff of 16 and 50 contract and 175 volunteer mediators. The staff consists of a mix of attorneys and professional mediators, Dinkin says, noting that several universities now offer advanced degrees in conflict resolution. On average, the center handles about 2,000 cases a year, from divorce settlements and small-claims court referrals to complex business dissolution procedures. Community cases are handled gratis; businesses that choose mediation over litigation can expect to pay $250 to $400 an hour.

Many of the cases involve divorce, where emotions typically run high—and where it’s to the benefit of all for the disputing parties to maintain a cordial relationship afterward, Dinkin says. The center also gets a lot of mediation cases between police officers and citizens, as well as construction- defect cases.

Sometimes things can get a little crazy.

One dispute Dinkin’s mediators resolved involved a kidnapped lizard. “Things had gotten so emotional that one party had broken into another party’s house and stolen the lizard,” he says. “We helped them figure out that the issue wasn’t really about the lizard, it was some other problem a group of neighbors were arguing over, and the lizard just became the focal point.

“But that’s what we do—we get people talking, and eventually we get to the real core issue. And once we’ve identified what the dispute really is about, we can make some real progress.”


The Day the Buzz Saw Died

AFTER OPERATING from the same downtown location in the 800 block of Fifth Avenue for 114 years, San Diego Hardware is closing shop this month and moving. The new store, at 5710 Kearny Villa Road on Kearny Mesa, features an 8,000-squarefoot showroom and a design center, where customers can debate which of the store’s 7,000 knobs and 2,000 hinges would look just right in their homes.

Co-owner Rip Fleming says the move was prompted by the success of Gaslamp Quarter redevelopment, which has made it virtually impossible for customers, particularly contractors, to find parking.

“Over the last four or five years, we’ve shifted out of being a traditional hardware store,” Fleming says. “We sell decorative and functional hardware and plumbing, but no more tools, no paint, no mops, no brooms, no saws, none of that.”

As a result, he says, the store’s customer base has changed from nearby residents to high-end remodelers “from all over the county, particularly North County,” Fleming says. “Our customers want to pull up to the front of our store, and it’s pretty tough.

“Don’t get me wrong——we love downtown,” he adds. “But downtown has become so successful it’s hard for a store like ours to do business there.”

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