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Durham fighting to regain mediation services 

The funding of mediation centers that provide dispute settlement services has evolved into a dispute so heated it probably ought to be sent to a mediator for resolution. After several years without a center for mediation specifically for Durham County, a group of local residents is trying to galvanize the General Assembly to support a plan that would return mediation services to a Durham location.

The dispute began back in 2000 when Dispute Settlement Center of Durham (DSC) headed up mediation services for Durham County.

"We'd mediate neighbor disputes. [Also] principal and family [disputes] in a school ... a whole bunch of types," says Nonna Skumanich, who worked for DSC in 2000.

In Raleigh, there was another mediation center, called Wake Mediation Services. It decided to merge with Carolina Correctional Services (CCS), a company specializing in court-based rehabilitation and other local safety services. After merging with the Wake County center, CCS looked for ways to expand its services in the Triangle.

"Post-merger, it was felt that there were opportunities to pursue new, innovative ... initiatives at the regional ... level, as well as to forge deeper working relationships with other mediation centers," says Nathaniel Gay, now the CCS director of programs.

CCS looked to Durham's Dispute Settlement Center as a possible merger target. That's where things got complicated. At first, DSC was enthusiastic about a merger.

"By joining forces, it would strengthen [the Durham center]," Skumanich says. "The idea was that CCS would handle the fund-raising, and it would free up the director to focus on the issues. That was the hope."

In late 2000, the circumstances began to change, and the Durham staff began to fear they were slowly becoming obsolete. Former DSC staff members had a hard time adjusting to the terms of the merger and, as a result, several resigned.

First, CCS sold the Durham offices. Durham staffers saw this as a move to disband the Durham offices in favor of a Raleigh-based center.

"[CCS] profited $48,000 from the sale of this building," says Grace Marsh, who served as a director on DSC's board. "The offices were moved to a small office downtown. Later, that office was closed and mediations took place in the courthouse, in offices provided by the DA."

The sale is not seen in the same light by CCS directors in Raleigh.

"CCS did not move the Durham mediation services to Raleigh. In fact, immediately after the merger ... CCS invested heavily in the facility being used because it was not being maintained properly," Gay says.

Gay mentioned problems of prostitution and drug deals taking place outside the Durham office. He explained that CCS determined that the Durham office was not an appropriate place to conduct mediation services.

"As a result, we put the property up for sale and pursued a safe, centralized office location in the downtown area," Gay says.

Another concern of the Durham board was the angle CCS was taking toward the services DSC was providing.

"CCS was putting the squeeze on in terms of what everybody could do ... They were really focused on making a profit. That really narrowed the things the center could do," Skumanich says. "The two companies had different cultures. [CCS] really wasn't into mediation. They weren't into the nonprofit thing."

In 2003, former Wake Mediation Services board members negotiated a split from CCS in order to form Carolina Dispute Settlement Services (CDSS). No former DSC board members were involved in negotiating the separation.

CCS was now out of the mediation services picture, and any former DSC staff members were now part of CDSS. By 2004, Durham members saw the demise of mediation services provided directly in the Durham area. Former DSC board members created Durham Mediation Now, a group to lobby for a Durham-based center for mediation services. The chair of Durham Mediation Now contacted CDSS and asked to discuss divestiture. The chair of CDSS responded, saying that they had no plans to divest any part of the Durham center.

At this point, funding for a Durham-based center was the main issue. Each county receives a certain amount of money from the state.

"There is no set formula used to determine how much money each county gets. It is up to the delegation that works to secure ample funding," Marsh says.

The Durham legislative delegation had secured around $87,000 a year for Durham services. This money was being sent to CDSS in Raleigh, as it was the provider of minimal mediation services in Durham.

Durham Mediation Now is currently working with the Durham legislative delegation, with the support of various Durham officials, to return the funding originally earmarked for Durham services to a Durham-based mediation center.

Durham Mediation Now has asked that the money be provided to Women in Action, a Durham-based nonprofit organization founded in 1968 that would handle Durham mediation services. Skumanich, chairwoman of Durham Mediation Now, is optimistic about the progress being made in the legislature to return funds.

A provision that would return the funding is currently in a pending appropriations bill.

"It's going to happen one way or another," she says.

More by Greg Margolis


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