Ann Bassett from MVTV interviewed Peter Meleney, Board Member of MVMP, on "The Vineyard View". A thorough review of MV Mediation Program's initiative to advance and introduce the Restorative Justice process to the Island was discussed, as well as the concepts and benefits of the RJ process.
In his poem “Mending Fences,” a Robert Frost character declares that “good fences make good neighbors.” Good advice for neighbors, perhaps, but not for family members, particularly when sensitive matters, such as dividing family assets, are on the table.
Island resident Roland Miller has spent more than 30 years helping family members navigate solutions for problems like these through the process of mediation. Mr. Miller, a former school superintendent, is secretary-treasurer of the nonprofit Martha’s Vineyard Mediation Program (MVMP) in Vineyard Haven.
“We are a nonprofit community mediation program, one of 12 partially funded by the Massachusetts Office of Collaboration, based at UMass Boston. We get about $30,000, and raise the balance of our expenses through contributions, grants, and fees appropriate to income. We’ve never turned anyone away,” he said in an interview last week. MVMP handles about 50 cases a year, he said.
Also known as the Martha’s Vineyard Center for Dispute Resolution, the MVMP was founded in 1984 by Judge Herbert Tucker and Clerk Magistrate Thomas Teller as a court-based program, taking only cases referred by the Island’s district court. In 1990, MVMP expanded to accept cases from the community of Dukes County and became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit.
The Times caught up with Mr. Miller following a seminar last week sponsored by MVMD attended by about 25 Vineyard residents, who evidently liked what they heard. “We asked them to rate the program on a 1-10 scale. I think 15 people gave us a 10 and the rest rated the program as 8 or 9,” he said.
“We are not lawyers. We help people have difficult conversations,” he said, describing the essence of mediation. The all-volunteer board, many of whom are its mediation practitioners, include William Jacob (president), Sara Barnes (vice president), Mr. Miller, Peter Meleney (at-large), Courtney Brady, Louis Pashman, Christina Simmons, William Stafursky, Gayle Stiller, Rise Terney, and Eric Turner.
Mr. Miller is aware also that he and his associates work in an age when families are often spread throughout the country and world, and on a rapidly aging Island where cottages bought 30 or 40 years ago for $30,000 are now worth hundreds of thousands — or more — dollars:
“We have three areas of work: small claims in Edgartown District Court; civil cases like landlord-tenant and contractor-client disputes, and community cases such as family, divorce, elders, veterans, and neighborhood and workplace issues.
“In the past few years, we have been involved in more family property issues, including three earlier this year,” he said.
“The first generation usually takes care of maintenance and improvements, decides on priority projects, and pays the bills. However, after the first generation, maintenance and ownership issues can be complex and difficult to resolve. In many cases, the second generation and beyond face some serious challenges involving the vacation property, including but not limited to the geographic dispersion of family members; disparity of wealth (among family members); unaligned visions for the future (among family members); conflicting values and priorities for maintenance and improvements, and historical emotional baggage.
“People who inherit often have issues dealing with everything involved, and the situation is generally more complicated if there are several heirs,” he said. Some of the real-time questions involved include “how and who pays bills, how to account for an ongoing divorce, or even whether or not to enclose the front porch,” he said.
Education in conflict resolution is part of the MVMP mission, and Mr. Miller said the seminar he put together was related. His panelists included Island veteran mediator John Wofford, a Cambridge-based mediator and facilitator, also for more 30 years.
The idea that the family “will work it out” is fraught with danger, particularly to family relationships, In the division of inherited assets, Mr. Wofford said. “There is a triangle of elements in mediation cases: the interest of parties, the procedural process, then there is the emotional piece that is so important,” he told the Times in a phone interview last weekend.
Mediation has grown in popularity nationally since the practice became more institutionalized in the mid-1980s. State and federal governments, corporations, and individuals have turned to mediation as a lower-cost, better-resolution outcome than litigation often provides.
Interestingly, both Mr. Miller and Mr. Wofford indicated that in their experience, mediation has an 85 percent success rate, a rate that is mirrored by both federal and corporate studies on mediation. A 2004 article in the Harvard Business Review, for example, said that corporations such as Toyota U.S. and Chevron found that lawsuits dropped by 90 percent after mediation was introduced.
The mediation process is designed to produce voluntary agreement between people. It is different from arbitration, a process in which both parties agree to be bound by the decision, often a compromise, by a third party, nor is it a litigation process in which a court finds for one party over another. WIn-win is the goal in mediation, as the men described it.
There is literature about the trials of family property. Close to home, Island resident Madeleine Blais has written about the emotional parting with her family’s Island home in her best-selling memoir “To the New Neighbors.” Mr. Miller also recommends “Saving the Family Cottage” from nolo.com.
Mr. Wofford assembled five takeaways that mediation participants should expect during his presentation to the Vineyard audience last week
- Start talking as soon as possible
- Be prepared for multiple issues …
- And for complex, emotional and difficult conversations
- Be willing to ask for help from advisors, attorneys, and mediators
- That inheritances based on joint ownership can be problematic. The idea that the heirs “will work it out” is not a failsafe, particularly in situations involving real estate in which joint owners are tenants in common.
Alternate Path for Petty Offenders: Restorative Justice
Tuesday, January 31, 2017
In Hawaii they call it Ho’oponopono, in New Zealand it’s Te Whanau Awhina. And the Wampanoag people have a similar traditional process — a way of finding a balance or resolution between the victim of a crime and the perpetrator. Another widely used term for it today is restorative justice, or more simply, the circle.
“Throughout human history and among many cultures, people have gathered in a circle to resolve problems that arise between members of their community,” Christy Barbee, a facilitator, told a group that met at the Oak Bluffs police station last Friday.
The meeting was organized by the Martha’s Vineyard Mediation Program and Oak Bluffs resident Peter Meleney, who helped develop a restorative justice program in Maryland in 2003. “Restorative justice is designed to, among other things, keep young people from getting a criminal record for a first, usually minor, offense,” he said.
When Peter presented the concept to police chief Erik Blake and Det. Jim Morse of the Oak Bluffs police force, they were interested. Detective Morse is both a police officer and a lawyer who works as a prosecutor for Oak Bluffs cases. He said he immediately saw the advantage of keeping minor incidents out of the time-consuming and costly criminal justice process. Restorative justice is also a key part of the Oak Bluffs community policing concept. “Restorative justice helps the police get to know their community more intimately and be involved with their community in more depth,” Ms. Barbee said at the meeting.
The restorative justice or circle process brings together the victim and offender along with their families and other members of the community, including the police department, to discuss what happened, how everyone was affected and what the group wants to have happen to repair the harm, as much as possible. A key element is that the perpetrator admits guilt and takes responsibility for his or her actions. The process ends with an agreement signed by the victim and offender in which the offender promises to make a mutually acceptable restitution to the victim. A case coordinator then assures that the agreement is fulfilled.
The types of offenses eligible for the circle process include vandalism, petty larceny, break-ins and shoplifting.
According to Ms. Barbee, restorative justice is more effective than the criminal justice system. Studies have shown that both the victim and offender achieve a higher level of satisfaction and that recidivism (the chance of the offender repeating the crime) is greatly reduced.
The circle process involves volunteers who are trained in three key roles. A facilitator guides the meeting, during which the affected people gather to restore balance. A case coordinator manages the case from beginning to end and keeps a record of it. And a community member acts as a witness and to provide input.
About 20 people attended the meeting Friday, about a third of them involved in mediation on the Island. Most signed up for training on Feb. 17 and 18 as either a restorative justice facilitator or community member.
The Martha’s Vineyard Mediation Program (MVMP) and the Oak Bluffs Police Department (OBPD) have partnered to launch a restorative justice pilot program on the Vineyard as an alternative to the traditional criminal justice process. The new program will gather victims, offenders, police officers, and other facilitators in a circle dialogue, to discuss the criminal event, the effects on the victim, and how the damage done may be repaired.
The initiative looks to work with primarily first-time offenders, and victims of minor crimes such as shoplifting, vandalism, petty larceny, and breaking and entering, according to Detective James Morse of OBPD. The victim has to agree to using the process, and the offender must admit to the crime.
“I think there are certain types of cases that come across my desk, and at prosecutions down at the district court, that a program like this is very relevant and a nice way to screen [offenders] away from formal prosecution, and would empower the people who were victimized to have a more active role in how the case played out,” Detective Morse said Friday at an introductory meeting on restorative justice at the OBPD. He has been with OBPD for more than 22 years.
MVMP invited Christy Barbee, an independent restorative justice practitioner from Concord, to speak at the meeting. She explained to about 20 people that restorative justice is a “set of principles” that acknowledges that crime is a violation of people and relationships, that it creates various types of harm, and that victims should be included to address the harm, needs, and obligations that arise from crime.
Ms. Barbee described it as another tool in a police officer’s toolkit, and a complement, not a substitute, to the traditional justice system. But it’s a shift that places the victim of the crime at the center of the discussion, rather than the offender and his or her punishment.
Ms. Barbee said that the typical process examines the law that was broken, what the charge was, who was to blame, and what the punishment ought to be.
“The Western criminal justice system is basically oriented toward punishing and sentencing,” she said. “So in the [restorative justice] world, that first question turns into, Who has been hurt or affected?”
Peter Meleney, a member of the executive committee at MVMP, told the audience that restorative justice “is centered around a radical notion in modern American life — getting people in conflict to sit in a circle and talk to each other.”
Founded in 1984, MVMP is a nonprofit organization that facilitates peaceful resolutions of a wide array of conflicts — family, divorce, workplace, or property disputes are some — and also offers programs to promote mediation and alternative dispute resolution.
The meeting offered information to people who were interested in being trained as facilitators of the circle dialogue process, where community members are trained to work with victims, offenders, and law enforcement. MVMP aims to hold a training toward the end of February.
Restorative justice can be transformative, Ms. Barbee said, because it brings about accountability. It’s beyond admitting guilt, and it’s beyond saying “sorry.”
“It’s owning an act and its consequences,” she said.
The circle dialogue approach helps people be accountable for their actions by creating the opportunity to hear how a victim was affected. She said it’s the dialogue that brings about an offender’s transformation.
“We don’t really know how someone has been affected by our actions until we hear it from them,” Ms. Barbee said.
Restorative justice is used around the country, and elsewhere in the world, in varied ways, as a method in prisons and even in dealing with murders. Detective Morse said that on the Vineyard, a murder case would be “clearly not appropriate,” but the technique could be used for minor crimes that are typical to the Island, such as shoplifting or breaking and entering.
He said he still is working out the specifics with the district attorney, but the initiative would require a referral from the police before an arraignment, and one of the goals would be that a criminal record does not attach to the accused.
Ms. Barbee said it’s up to law enforcement to determine what’s most appropriate. Although she has worked with adults, she said the initiative is often geared toward young adults — usually 17 to 25 years old.
“It’s really community policing at its best in deciding what’s appropriate here,” Mr. Meleney echoed.
Restorative justice isn’t necessarily forgiveness, and it’s not easy on offenders, according to Ms. Barbee. In her experience, many people are concerned that restorative justice is coddling a person who has committed a crime, but, she said, she knew her work with restorative justice was successful when a judge remarked to her once that she was “working the kids a lot harder than they ever did.”
She said that a circle dialogue is more difficult than simply “picking up trash for a few weekends, or writing an essay about why drinking is bad.”
“It’s hard for any of us to sit with somebody who you know you’ve done harm to. That in itself is a big thing,” Ms. Barbee said. “But a circle process usually concludes with there being an agreement by which the person who did the wrong is going to try to make it up. And that’s hard work.”
M.V. Mediation and Oak Bluffs police department partner on new restorative justice program
Sen. Dan Wolf and Rep. Tim Madden will help the Martha’s Vineyard Mediation Program (MVMP) celebrate its 30th anniversary on Wednesday, Oct. 1.
The public is invited to join Senator Wolf, Representative Madden, MVMP board members and volunteer mediators, and other supporters of the program at 11 am in the Dukes County Courthouse on Main Street, Edgartown, for a short program, followed at 11:30 am by a reception at the Baylies Room in the nearby Whaling Church.
Mediators help people have the difficult conversations that are often necessary before they can settle their differences, according to a press release. The Martha’s Vineyard Mediation Program provides these services for Dukes County residents on a sliding-scale fee basis. Parties to small-claims cases in the Edgartown District Court may elect to go to mediation instead of having their case decided by the clerk-magistrate; this service is provided at no cost.
Among those who make use of the program’s services are landlords and tenants, employers and employees, contractors and clients, business partners, family members, and couples who are separating or divorcing.
The MVMP was founded in 1984 as a court-based program by Judge Herbert Tucker and Thomas Teller, then clerk-magistrate for the Edgartown District Court. In 1990 the program expanded to accept cases from the Martha’s Vineyard community. It is approved by the state as a court-annexed mediation program, and thus is able to handle cases referred by the Edgartown District Court, Superior Court, and Probate and Family Court.
MVMP receives funding from private donations, grants, income from its modest case fees, and a grant from the Massachusetts Office of Public Collaboration.
Dispute mediators recommend checklists and written contracts.
With the summer rental season in full swing on Martha’s Vineyard, disputes between landlords and tenants are not uncommon. At a recent workshop hosted by the Martha’s Vineyard Mediation Program (MVMP), those familiar with landlord-tenant laws and regulations recommended checklists and written contracts as commonsense ways to help prevent problems.
The workshop, held on May 16 at the Edgartown town hall meeting room, began with an overview of current Massachusetts laws governing l seasonal and year-round residential rentals, and transitioned to a question and answer session with 12 landlords, many of them mediators for MVMP, and four tenants.
“Sometimes tenants will not let landlords in,” West Tisbury lawyer George Davis said, citing one of many common disputes. “Do not force entry, even though it’s your right to enter,” Mr. Davis advised. “A lot of trouble can result from that, so you should go to court. It’s an unfortunate road to take, but it could save a lot of difficulty down the road.”
Other common issues highlighted during the session included tenants refusing to leave or pay for damages, and landlords mishandling deposits or forcing tenants out by shutting off utilities or changing the locks, tactics that can legally entitle the tenant to three months worth of rent for each offense. One of the most damaging and easily avoided disputes occurs when a tenant refuses to leave at the conclusion of their lease.
“We’re a resort destination and a lot of people rent their properties, so the opportunity arises for disagreement,” MVMP president Roland Miller said in a conversation with The Times. “The MVMP tries to help people with all sorts of disputes, between tenants and contractors, in small claims or others, and between contractors and other contractors, but often between tenants and landlords.”
Mr. Davis said the Vineyard presents a unique set of problems tied to the seasonal shift from winter to summer rentals.
“If the tenant doesn’t leave for whatever reason, it can wreak havoc on a landlord, who then has to deal with renters coming up with nowhere to stay,” said Mr. Davis in a conversation with The Times following the meeting. “It gets complicated on the Vineyard, as a vacation destination where summer rates are, you know, four times higher, with tenants paying $1,000 per month in winter but $4,000 per month in summer. The best way to prevent this dispute is having a tenant at will, who doesn’t have a lease and only requires 30 days notice to move out. Then the process can be started earlier, to get the tenant to leave by May 31.”
Peter Meleney, a MVMP outreach coordinator, said that the MVMP deals with eviction less often, because evictions go to court rather than small claims or mediation, but stressed checklists and good landlord-tenant relationships.
“Our view is that both landlords and tenants need a checklist, not the same checklist, before entering into any sort of agreement,” he said in a conversation with The Times. “I see disagreements which never should have happened. We had one family coming for a vacation rental, looking at a three-bedroom house, but they showed up and it was only two bedrooms. That could be avoided if there was a checklist that included confirming the listing matches reality. Another case, a family came in December, and it was cold and the heat didn’t work. This wouldn’t happen if there was a checklist with a utility check.”
He suggested local boards of health become involved in this process, creating an inspection checklist that covered common sources of landlord-tenant disputes.
“An inspector would look at the exterior, yard, locks, kitchen sinks, stove, refrigerator, outlets, window and door screens,” he said. “This is something you can do yourself, or get a town office to come and do it. From both a landlord and tenant standpoint, it would be nice to know the house has been inspected for health code standards, and I know that would help, even if not with the two-bedroom three-bedroom case. I don’t know if a town office would take something like that up, but they could charge for it and it would be in everyone’s best interests.”
He suggested that a checklist was a simple, commonsense solution.
“Surgeons do it, pilots do it, why don’t homeowners do it?” he said. “Even if you’re an expert, you need a checklist, because you can forget and make mistakes.”
He also stressed the importance of a written contract, another common-sense aspect of a successful landlord-tenant relationship that he says is often overlooked.
“Having a contract that both parties sign, and is clear, responsibilities of both parties in the contract, is common sense and prevents many disputes,” he said.
All three men recommended two booklets distributed by the Office of Consumer Affairs & Business Regulation when it came to preventing and resolving disputes. The booklets, a green one for landlords and a red one for tenants, are titled “A Massachusetts Consumer Guide to Rights and Responsibilities.” They can be acquired from the MVMP, which has a part- time office between Mondays and Fridays from 9 to 11 am across from the Black Dog Cafe on State Road (508-693-2999), or online at http://www.mass.gov/consumer
This is the season for gathering with family and friends, exchanging gifts, attending concerts and worship services and sitting down together for a big holiday meal. But as you pack the car to go off-Island or prepare your home to receive extended family, your anticipation is mixed with apprehension.
You’ve got to bring “it” up, but you don’t know how, and you’re dreading what’s going to happen when you do.
It could be anything. Maybe your 90-year-old dad has had two fender-benders in recent months. You think it’s time for him to stop driving, but you know he’s going to hate the idea.
Or perhaps the sibling who looked after Grandma in her last year is still living in her house. The house now belongs to all three of you. Now what?
Or perhaps your aging parents are struggling to keep up the home you and your siblings grew up in. Would they be happier in a Woodside Village apartment?
Or perhaps Mama has been complaining incessantly about her next-door neighbor in the group-living situation she moved into last spring. Is there anything you can do to help her out?
Such matters are hard to bring up, but if they aren’t addressed, the situation may deteriorate. Relationships fray. Family members stop speaking to each other.
Here is where a facilitator can be indispensable. Facilitators are neutral third parties who have been trained in mediation techniques. They help focus the discussion and keep everyone on track. They ensure that all participants are heard. When a party can’t be present for health or other reasons, they make sure that person’s interests are represented at the table. Facilitators trained in elder affairs are familiar both with the issues facing adult families and with the community resources available to them.
One service offered by the Martha’s Vineyard Mediation Program is facilitation for family meetings. The elder population on the Vineyard is growing. Studies suggest that as much as 80 per cent of elder care is provided by families, not institutions. Accordingly, the Island mediation program has designated elder affairs a priority for the coming year.
In mid-November, 11 Vineyard mediators and elder care providers attended an all-day workshop run by Elder Decisions© of Norwood. The trainers, authors of the book Mom Always Liked You Best: A Guide for Resolving Family Feuds, Inheritance Battles & Eldercare Crises, emphasized that elder affairs involve more than elders. Adult family members are very much part of the picture. These may include former spouses, half siblings, and others who either don’t know each other well or haven’t spoken in years. They have different expectations, needs and resources, all of which must be taken into account.
Where the disposition of property and other family assets is concerned, these differences can lead to serious conflict. As the trainers and authors note, “These dilemmas account for some of the most vicious family feuds and court battles in our society.”
With the help of trained facilitators, families can work together to identify and solve potential problems, thus avoiding future bitterness and litigation. The best time to do this is before declining health or depleted finances precipitate a crisis.
With facilitation, a meeting dreaded by all can become an opportunity to solve problems, resolve disputes, and improve relationships among family members.
“It was amazing,” said one client. “We were able to vent, have our feelings validated and then get reinforcement on the topics we needed to discuss and make decisions on.”
Led by the Dukes County Health Council and its healthy aging committee, Martha’s Vineyard is mobilizing to better serve its aging population. Its priorities include health care, transportation and housing. They also include helping families and caregivers deal with the challenges that can come with aging. As part of this effort, the Martha’s Vineyard Mediation Program offers facilitation services to help Vineyard families work through these issues and emerge with solutions acceptable to all parties.
To learn more, call 508-693-2999 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Susanna J. Sturgis trained as a mediator last March and now volunteers for the Martha’s Vineyard Mediation Program.
One of the first steps in mediating a dispute is agreeing on the problem, says lawyer Ed Greenebaum, professor emeritus of law at Indiana University (IU). Only then can an attempt be made to find a solution.
The Martha’s Vineyard Mediation Program (MVMP) will draw on Mr. Greenebaum’s expertise and insights on dispute resolution as part of a four-day course in mediation the group will host in March.
MVMP is a 29-year-old program of volunteers who assist in resolving community disputes that include contractor-homeowner disagreement and divorces. Becca Rogers, MVMP program coordinator, said that the majority of the group’s work occurs in the context of Edgartown District Court small claims hearings.
Following a four-year lapse in funding due to State budgetary cuts, the group recently received a $28,400 grant, one of only 15 recipients state-wide. The grant enabled MVMP to hire Ms. Rogers as a part-time coordinator. She is working to increase the group’s visibility and services. “The grant will enable us to be more aggressive with our programs and outreach,” she said.
The training course in basic mediation skills is open to anyone who would like to become a better problem solver, Ms. Rogers said. Businessmen, teachers, community leaders, medical professionals as well as people interested in giving back to the community have benefited from the course in the past.
Mr. Greenebaum, a resident of Menemsha, will partner with Liza Williamson, Clerk Magistrate for the Edgartown District Court, and Margot Parrot, retired elder law attorney and current adjunct professor of law at Western New England School of Law.
Mr. Greenebaum said that just because a disputed issue is recognized by the two parties and an agreement is reached it doesn’t mean the problem is always solved. “The offending party still may not have the means to pay, but hopefully they learned how they got there and can avoid similar situations in the future,” he said.
Mr. Greenebaum has taught courses in civil procedure, professional responsibility, alternative dispute resolution, and mediation, as well as clinical courses exploring the social psychology of professional work while at IU.
The training course, which meets the State’s minimum required 32 hours for court mediation, will take place on March 2, 3, 9 and 10 from 8:30 am to 5 pm. The course fee is $400 and covers all course materials, lunch and snacks for the four days. Scholarships are available. The enrollment deadline was February 15, but late applicants will be considered. Interested parties should email the office at email@example.com or call 508-693-2999.
Last Thursday, past and current members of the Martha’s Vineyard Center for Dispute Resolution celebrated their 25th anniversary in the one place they have been so effective at keeping people out of for years: the Edgartown district court.
Formerly the Martha’s Vineyard Mediation Program, the organization trains mediators who try to facilitate peaceful resolutions between opposing parties in a confidential, constructive and empathetic fashion, before either party resorts to formal litigation, which can often turn recriminatory and divisive.
The process also helps to decongest the court by tackling disputes that could be better dealt with informally.
As former program president John Washbrook explained, just getting rival parties to be in the same room can often have enormous psychological effects.
Guests of honor: Tom Teller with Gretchen and Mary Tucker. — Mark Alan Lovewell
“At the beginning of a dispute people don’t even want to communicate at all. Once they’re willing to come together and discuss it in mediation, well then, you’re already on first base,” he said. “Oftentimes it’s a surprise to the two parties because they didn’t realize where that other person was coming from.”
At the celebration last Thursday, Cape and Islands Rep. Timothy Madden formally recognized the organization with a resolution adopted by the Massachusetts House of Representatives and State Senate congratulating the center on its silver anniversary, as well as for the work it has done in the community. He also read aloud three individual citations for the late Hon. Herbert Tucker Jr. and former clerk magistrate Tom Teller, who founded the program, as well as longtime mediator Margie Haven, who vowed to press on for 25 more successful years.
Accepting the award on behalf of her late husband, whose stately portrait watched over the proceedings, a visibly moved Mary Tucker expressed her gratitude and optimism for the future of the program,
“It started with four or five people so to see this many people here today is very impressive, and the fact that it will continue in the way that it will is very meaningful to me,” she said.
Mr. Madden, who lives on Nantucket, also recognized the sensitivity of settling disputes on a close-knit Island, adding: “My wife is the mediator of my family’s island and she could tell you.”
The program was started in 1984 by the late Mr. Tucker and Mr. Teller, each of whom had been independently interested in the idea of mediation for years.
For Mr. Tucker, who was a former associate judge in Dorchester, mediation was nothing new. He had developed the Urban Mediation Project in Boston, a highly successful program that was the first of its kind in the commonwealth. It became a model to others across the state.
“It was one of the most successful mediation programs in the country,” Mr. Teller said.
But when federal funding dried up, the program followed suit, and when Mr. Tucker was appointed the presiding court judge of the Edgartown district court in 1979, he was determined to bring his experience in mediation to the Island.
Deborah Medders hands honors to Tom Teller and Judge Tucker posthumously. — Mark Alan Lovewell
Meanwhile, Tom Teller had become interested in the idea through an educational conference for clerks he had attended, which had featured a presentation on mediation. With his Martha’s Vineyard office short-staffed, Mr. Teller’s secretary Shelley Devine would often perform double duty, typing up letters in the courthouse for Mr. Tucker as well. One day when she was having trouble deciphering one of Mr. Tucker’s cryptic handwritten letters, she brought it to Mr. Teller for a second opinion. When Mr. Teller saw that the letter was about Mr. Tucker’s interest in mediation, the program was effectively born.
“Who ever thought that 25 years later the program would still be going strong?” said Mr. Teller.
Like most nonprofits the Center for Dispute Resolution faces constant funding pressures as well as the need to bring in new volunteers to serve as mediators. At the event on Thursday current president Deborah Medders implored people to consider joining the organization,
“We’re going to have a training program in February or March and we would love to have more mediators,” she said.
Mr. Washbrook thinks the investment in time is well worth it.
“When you finish a mediation it’s an exhilarating high to know that you’ve done some good, that you’ve helped bring people together and resolved a misunderstanding or dispute and I really mean that,” he said. “Most all mediators share the same enthusiasm and passion.”
On Thursday Ms. Medders offered a vignette to the audience to illustrate the therapeutic powers of mediation:
“We had these two people who had been friends for a long time and certain things had occurred that they hadn’t understood and that were underground. Mediation just opened up the world for them. Their friendship blossomed and it was just a beautiful th
The Martha’s Vineyard Mediation Program is the silent partner of the Edgartown District Court. While what happens in court is public and sometimes pyrotechnic, mediation takes disputes off the docket and behind closed doors. It’s a voluntary alternative that allows disputants, facilitated by two mediators, to work together toward a mutually agreeable solution.
Referrals from small claims court aren’t the only ones that come to mediation, but they are the majority. Program coordinator Jane Thayer estimated seeing two small-claims cases for every one that comes from elsewhere in the community.
Mediation is a process ideally suited for a range of disputes: employer-employee, tenant-landlord, contractor-homeowner and neighbor to neighbor. Family disagreements – parent to teenager, separations and estate planning concerns – also bring people to mediation. The MVMP does not offer services in criminal cases or instances of spousal abuse or domestic violence.
The program started on-Island nearly 20 years ago through the efforts of Judge Herbert E. Tucker Jr. and clerk-magistrate Thomas A. Teller. Judge Tucker had come here from the Dorchester court system, where the first mediation program in the state had begun.
“We thought, why not do the same thing here? It’s helpful to the court and to the people,” Mr. Tucker said this week in an MVMP panel discussion with the Gazette. “Sometimes matters can be disposed of without as much attention to evidentiary matters. We don’t want to frighten anybody; they don’t need some shark lawyer questioning them. They can be at ease, say what they want and get away with it. It’s about using your common sense. We can dispose of things without resorting to the law and clogging up the court.”
Mediation is a private and confidential process. There are no judges; lawyers may be present if both parties agree, but they must follow the mediation procedure. The Island program assigns two trained mediators per case. Each party tells his story, uninterrupted, while the others listen.
The mediators do not decide who is right or wrong, and they impose no solutions. What they do is guide discussion, help overcome communication barriers, and help people to understand other points of view.
“We’re like mirrors for the disputants,” Ms. Thayer said. “But we can take a step back and look at the dispute in a different light.”
A successful mediation does not turn on questions of law. Rather, it relies on the disputants themselves and the underlying belief that people want to settle their differences and can best decide what will work for them. The agreements are their own. Once formalized in writing and signed, they are legally binding.
In a peak year, the MVMP might see 100 cases. The mediation program, however, is not currently at its peak. It has experienced an ebb and flow since its inception. They’ve had as many as 30 volunteers; today the number hovers around 10.
Lack of funding is partially responsible for the cycle. A $50 fee per session covers minimal expenses, but the program is nonprofit. Though they have received occasional grants from the Massachusetts Bar Foundation – to go toward training, for example – there is no single, consistent source. And without funds it’s difficult for the program to put itself in the public eye. Referrals from lawyers, Elder Care or Community Services account for many of the cases that come their way. “We never had a budget,” said Mr. Teller. “We never had money, not even for a postage stamp.”
Volunteer commitment, instead, supports the program from year to year. And the simple fact that it works. Mr. Teller said 85 to 90 per cent of cases that go to mediation are resolved to the satisfaction of all parties – he estimated that to be 10 per cent more than throughout the state.
“Mediation is ideal in a small community, because people have to have ongoing relationships whether they like it or not,” Mr. Teller said. “These are neighbors or friends of neighbors or someone you can bump into at the A&P.”
“A lot of times you hear people say, ‘I just wanted you to hear my concerns,’ ” Ms. Thayer said.
“They may just want an apology,” added mediator Catherine Chamberlain. “A case can turn on a little thing. It’s often the principle of the matter.”
“In that sense it complements the court process,” said mediator Deborah Medders. “Some cases are more appropriate for mediation because they are so emotionally impacting.”
Allowing for feeling is one of the greatest advantages of mediation. “They let off their steam, and we try to make one spout of it,” said Mr. Tucker.
“We don’t dismiss emotion,” Mr. Hanjian said. “People come in with specific solutions in mind. But the key is to investigate why they feel so strongly. And it lets the opponent see where they’re coming from.”
Everyone at the table agreed that helping to find solutions to seemingly insurmountable problems is all the reward they need. “It’s a way to get close to the concept of justice and fair play,” said mediator John Washbrook. “And in the end, the feeling of achievement, there’s nothing like it.”
For nearly 30 years, it has solved disputes that were heading to small claims court. It has helped resolve differences between business partners, those going through divorce or custody cases, and it has even run seminars on how town conservation commissions and other agencies deal with emotional and consequential issues involving land use and planning.
But vital as its role has become, as of late last year the Martha’s Vineyard Mediation Program was all but broke. The group, a nonprofit, lost its state funding in 2009, a result of the financial crisis, and with the ending of its yearly subsidy of up to $40,000 a year went its part-time executive director and even its ability to pay rent for its Tisbury office on time.
“The money just fell off a cliff,” said Roland Miller, president of the program since last fall. “We just kind of limped along, solely on volunteer help.”
This week all that changed when the mediation program announced that it has received its first state grant in two years: $28,400 from the legislature, administered by the Massachusetts Office of Public Collaboration at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. It has just hired a new part-time program administrator. It has caught up on its rent. And in March it will run a training program to bring in new volunteer mediators to serve the Vineyard.
Also known as the Martha’s Vineyard Center for Dispute Resolution, the program began in 1984 and was created by the late judge Herbert E. Tucker Jr. of Oak Bluffs and Thomas Teller, the retired clerk magistrate from Edgartown.
The program does much of its work in small claims court, where volunteers stand by during two court sessions a month to help resolve disputes involving loans, rents, repairs, wages and other conflicts when both parties agree to try mediation. Solving disagreements outside of court can save both sides uncertainty, time, money and perhaps lasting ill will.
Using the mediation program costs those in conflict nothing and eases burdens on the court. The program mediates 40 to 50 cases a year, according to the office. “As mediators,” says its literature, “our goal is to promote dialogue between disputing parties and to help them come to a mutually agreeable resolution.” Parties reach a mediated settlement in about half the time, the program says.
“Every mediator is trained and has a mediation certificate,” said Mr. Miller, who lives in Vineyard Haven. “And they must also have six hours of continuing education each year.” Right now the program has 17 mediators, just under half of them seasonal residents volunteering part of each year, said Deborah Medders, who is Mr. Miller’s predecessor.
The Vineyard grant is one of 15 announced recently by the state, each going to similar programs across the commonwealth. The university office overseeing the distribution of the grants is also working with these programs on future budgets, so Mr. Miller believes the funding will continue without further interruption.
With that hope in mind, the group also announced this week that it will host a basic mediation training program for new volunteers in early March. The course takes 32 hours over two weekends — March 2 and 3 and March 9 and 10 — to complete. It is led by Ed Greenbaum, professor emeritus of law at Indiana University. The cost is $400 and includes all course materials.
Mr. Rollins offered his thanks to state Rep. Tim Madden, state Sen. Dan Wolf, their staffs and Ms. Medders for working hard to secure the new grant. Describing the effort to catch up on bills, cover the rent and phones and the internet and pay for a staff member to help run the office roughly 10 hours a week, Mr. Rollins said of the new funding: “It’s all spoken for.”