Written by Brad Karger
Earlier this year, retired Wausau attorney Randy Westgate approached the Marathon County Judiciary with an idea for a voluntary judicial mediation program that would help people resolve their disputes more quickly and for a lesser cost than processing the same issue in court.
The Marathon County Courts are clogged — so much so that, for years, we’ve been lobbying the State for an additional judge to help us process cases!
Given the situation, presiding Judge Greg Huber gave Westgate the go-ahead for his idea, and the program started in March of 2018 with its first team of community volunteer mediators.
But before I go any further in telling the story, let me take a step back and tell you a little about the benefits of resolving a dispute in mediation, rather than through a court proceeding:
- A mediated settlement can be achieved much faster than a court resolution. In court, you’re talking about a minimum of 6 months — and the possibility of several years — before a decision is rendered.
- In mediation, the clients are always in control. They don’t have to accept any arguments or make any concessions. If all else fails… they can always simply walk away.
- A mediated settlement can be achieved for a much lower cost than a court resolution. Court cases often involve attorneys’ fees and other expenses that can be minimized by participating in this much less formal process.
- Participants in a mediation often learn listening and dispute-resolution skills they can apply to future situations in their lives.
- Very often participants in mediation can preserve relationships and friendships. It’s an awful thing to lose a friend over an unpaid telephone bill, a borrowed lawn mower, or a simple misunderstanding. But it’s easy to do as the court process drags on.
Now, back to our story….
Westgate learned about volunteer mediation from Winnebago County. For some time, he drove all the way to Oshkosh to volunteer his time in their program. Once he got the go-ahead to start a similar mediation program in Marathon County, he:
- Raised 3 years of funding to launch the initiative,
- Recruited 25 volunteers (some of whom are pictured below),
- Trained the volunteers in civil mediation,
- Coordinated the group’s work with the court system to provide appropriate referrals and with our Clerk of Courts to secure appropriate facilities,
- …plus, a whole lot more.
From these humble beginnings… WOW, WHAT RESULTS WE’VE SEEN!
Our local volunteer mediators have been successful with between 80 and 90% of their referrals.
An example of the type of disputes that have been successfully resolved is an agreement for a tenant to vacate a rented mobile home. In that mediated settlement, the renter agreed to vacate the mobile home immediately and agreed to a payment plan he could afford for some of the rent due. The landlord agreed to accept partial payment and was happy that the mobile home would soon be vacant so he could get about the business of finding another tenant.
Another example involved a case where the parties had already agreed to a compromise. The voluntary mediators helped them identify additional issues they had not thought of, expanded the agreement to address these issues, and helped everyone complete the necessary forms to file their agreement with the court.
Things are working so well with this program that the Wausau Police Department is now interested in using this new voluntary mediation program to help diffuse conflicts that don’t rise to the level of a court case, like disputes among neighbors. Things like:
One neighbor feeds a 50-pound bag of mixed nuts to the squirrels in her yard. Her neighbors are now up in arms that the nuts are attracting mice, rats, skunks, and raccoons to the neighborhood and these unwanted wildlife visitors are damaging (among other things) their yards as the squirrels bury the nuts in their lawns.
Expanding the court mediation program to include such disputes is expected to take place in early fall. Such an expansion would free up police officers to do the work that keeps us safe. Plus, if the mediation is successful, neighbors might learn how to better communicate their concerns and become more considerate about how things done legally on their property can sometimes negatively impact others.
Many times, the issue on paper is not the real source of conflict anyway. Sometimes a simple apology can be critical to getting the ball rolling to resolve a personal conflict that underlies a dispute. The voluntary mediators have been trained to look for sub-issues, call them out, and see what the participants think they need and are willing to do to address them.
“Truly, for me, this is such an important initiative to be a part of. I was intrigued by the opportunity and challenge of learning a process and skill set to assist with conflict resolution. This volunteer mediation program that Randy has labored to produce is a gift to our local court system — and the entire community.” — Kathy Thurs, Volunteer mediator
I couldn’t agree more…
This new volunteer-based mediation program is great for Marathon County residents. In addition to all the benefits mentioned above, the agreements reached tend to be more durable, as people who are involved in crafting an agreement for themselves feel more responsibility in carrying out their part.
Plus, there’s the added bonuses of diverting cases away from our already over-burdened court system, speeding the process along, and saving the taxpayers money by utilizing trained community volunteers.
What’s NOT to love?!
For more information or to apply for the program, I invite you to contact Judicare (a non-profit law firm dedicated to providing equal access to justice for low-income Wisconsin residents) at firstname.lastname@example.org or 715-842-1681.
Marathon County Administrator
In his Administrator role, Brad Karger leads an organization with 700+ employees and an annual budget of more than $165 million. Brad has been in leadership positions with Marathon County for the past 30 years. He is known statewide for generating innovative ideas and solutions to problems, openness and transparency, and a commitment to community service that extends well beyond the normal workday. Email Brad Karger.
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