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Joe (00:02.615)

Welcome to ICMA's Voices in Local Government. My name is Joe Superville. Joining us as a voice of reason in a too often angry, accusing, litigious world is Sarah Hannah Spurlock, ICMA credential manager with 25 years in local government and now offering alternative conflict resolution through Sage Mediation and Consulting. Welcome, Sarah.


Sarah (00:22.833)

Thanks Joe for having me.


Joe (00:25.103)

So today's theme is how can mediation be effectively used by local governments, as we just said, maybe as an alternative to some of the other paths. But before we get into local government specific, is there any, can you actually define mediation and maybe dispel myths? Cause I think people understand, well, A, we have this third party and they're trying to help two people who are arguing get to a resolution. But what specifically, how would you define it? And is there anything?


any type of myths or misconceptions that should be clarified.


Sarah (00:55.81)

Yeah, sure. So yeah, folks often, myself included when I was starting this, see mediation in a very narrow viewpoint of legality in court cases. Mediation is a form of conflict resolution. You'll have different, in the court system, you can have litigation.


you know, where you're in a courtroom and a judge or a jury decides the results of your case. There's a winner and a loser. Arbitration, which is a little less formal than litigation, but you're still in a setting where the arbitrator is your judge and they make a decision about how your conflict will be resolved. Mediation is a much less formal.


yet still structured process to resolve your disputes. Mediators are third party neutrals. They help facilitate solutions between two parties in the dispute. There's often a huge caseload in any court system, especially in Florida, and judges use mediation to clear up those dockets.


It's a way for parties to get together and hash out their differences, express viewpoints and perspectives, and hopefully come up with a more creative, more flexible, more collaborative solution than they'd get in a courtroom.


Joe (02:34.367)

Okay. But I think people do kind of picture individuals or groups of people. How, how does a local government, how does it tie into that? Whether they're one of the parties on either side of the dispute or maybe caught in between two residents or residents and a business owner. How does it work with local government?


Sarah (02:55.698)

Yeah, so that's the two different avenues that I seek to pursue in my mediation practice. So the one side, what I've been talking about is in a legal system, in the court system. But then there's also just the need for dispute resolution in our personal and professional lives. In local government, for example, you might have a dispute between a business and a neighborhood.


or a dispute between two businesses, or a dispute between the government and the neighborhood, or a dispute between neighbors. And often local governments are caught in those disputes because they're the ones that are responsible for code compliance and regulation. So these different parties might go to the local government and say, hey, they're going


I don't think this other party that I'm in a dispute with is following the law and I want you to do something about it. And it's not always that simple. People that work in government can't be everywhere all the time, all at once. So that compliance is very difficult to capture. Also ordinances aren't always clear cut on what that compliance should look like.


Sarah (04:20.058)

way to resolve these disputes is through mediation, through a facilitated conversation. Mediation is a very, I think, misperceived term. I prefer like a collaborative discussion, a structured way to resolve your dispute. So local governments, this is another tool in the toolkit to help resolve some.


often sticky, ugly issues that ordinances can't necessarily address, or maybe you don't wanna take it to that level. You want something that's more collaborative. You want something that's less formal, something that isn't so contentious, and a mediation process offers that platform.


Joe (05:08.747)

Yeah. So one example I think of immediately, whether it's a neighbor or a nightclub, I know you were working in South Florida for a while, is the is the noise late, late night, or even in the am the local government doesn't want to be sending the cops every time there's a noise complaint at the same spot every time the cops don't want to deal with it. So what was your experience like there? And how can mediation whether it's a third party like what you do, or maybe even internal with the local government, how


What's the actual step to bring two parties together and who's facilitating it?


Sarah (05:45.39)

So, you know, as I kind of mentioned earlier, local government officials, code compliance officers, police officers, there just simply aren't enough of us, enough of them to ensure 100% compliance for noise complaints or any other kind of nuisance mitigation all the time.


Sarah (06:15.586)

comply that we can enforce isn't necessarily going to address the problem. So I think of with noise complaints, often a city's ordinance will allow a certain decibel level for noise. And the venue, the restaurant, the club is in compliance with that noise, acceptable noise level, but it's still too loud, according to the neighborhood.


And then there's just a, it's a never ending dispute, a never ending struggle with both parties because on the side of the business, it's a downtown active, vibrant nighttime economy and on that, that the music and the sound is all part of that amenity versus the quality of life of the neighborhood that's right next door sometimes.


And in our downtown areas these days, there's less and less separation between those two. So it's a mixed use. I mean, mixed use is kind of what downtowns are all about these days. Live, work, play, all in the same place. So the cost of that, of course, is sometimes having to tolerate loud noise. It could just be loud noise from people on the street. It could just be the motorcycles, the cars, the music.


So dealing with that all the time, when it's addressed all over town, local governments, it's just very difficult to do that. It's very difficult to be on those eyes on the street all the time to ensure compliance. One avenue, often the two parties, when I say two parties, neighborhood and a venue, they just, they're not understanding each other's perspective. And there's, when you don't know someone,


when you've never met them, all you see is an entity. All you see is the enemy. And mediation or this facilitated conversation is an ability for you to get to know the other party and understand their viewpoints and look at it from their perspective and vice versa. You know, now this venue will understand where I'm coming from, understand that I'm trying to sleep at two in the morning and I need a little peace and quiet. And...


Sarah (08:40.618)

You know, all of my neighbors, we would love to patronize your business, but frankly, we don't like you because you're too loud. So it's a win-win if they can work something out. So getting the two parties together to express those interests and those perspectives can often alleviate the need for this heavy regulation and compliance.


Joe (09:05.899)

Yeah, and hopefully alleviate the need for it to go to court in the first place, right? And I guess that also is where it gets a little grayer. The local government's not necessarily involved, but it's in their best interest for a more amenable agreement by the end of it.


Sarah (09:10.1)



Sarah (09:24.05)

Yeah, exactly. And I, I believe that using mediation or this facilitated conversation process.


could be a regular part of the city government protocol for resolving disputes. You know, there's all kinds of disputes. You have noise, but I think of some of the things that I've experienced when I was in local government. There was the onslaught of scooters. There was the ride share controversy from several years ago. And it's hard to imagine our life now without Uber and Lyft.


But there was a time where it was not allowed because we didn't have the ordinances in place to address it. And when government struggle keeping up with modern trends and practices because creating law and creating policy takes time. And very often it has to be in reaction to those trends and not even at the same pace or ahead of those trends. So...


Joe (10:32.543)

Yeah, and on top of that, it's the politicians that might get involved where, as the city, county, town managers have to enforce it or do the administration, but they're not even involved in the decisions on such policies.


Sarah (10:36.438)



Sarah (10:45.054)

Yeah. And I, I remember the ride share controversy in Broward County, in Fort Lauderdale. Um, and the, the politicians and certain parties were obviously the taxi industry or very anti ride share. Um, but you know, the fact of the matter is that it exists and it does well in other cities. And so.


eventually you had to come to the acceptance that we're going to have ride share so we need to figure out how to do it so what I am suggesting is that mediation getting those two parties together getting those three parties together those four parties together to say okay here are my concerns here's what I'm interested in here's what I see as the pros and cons of this and all the parties getting together expressing that and then all the parties coming up with a solution to resolve that issue that challenge that dispute


so that there's some ownership and some accountability for success. And so often that when those disputes happen, when those challenges happen, it's like, okay, local government, okay, city government, okay, county government, you need to figure it out. You need to figure out what our policy is going to be. And it's going to make some people happy and it's going to irritate other people. But if there's everyone coming together to help come up with that solution.


then there's less of that. And I just feel like if this mediation process was part of the normal process of establishing rules and policies and ordinances, I mean, it would go a long way to having a successful ordinance policy regulation.


Joe (12:26.111)

Okay. So benefit wise or cost benefit, I should even say the mediation, putting that together isn't necessarily going to be free, but can you speak to maybe some small upfront cost first, bigger savings on the backend and it's maybe hard to calculate because it's not like a clear cut where we saved X amount because of this, but just the long term understanding or avoidance of bigger


the little budget items that have to keep happening because the local government is responding to every little thing that comes up. How is that equation going to work in favor of the local government in the long term when it comes to the cost benefit?


Sarah (13:11.586)

Well, there's the obvious cost savings of not going to court. So one of these ride share companies, or a scooter, I'm thinking of an example of the scooters. One of the scooter companies, you know, maybe didn't get selected to operate scooters in that particular jurisdiction. Or that jurisdiction decided that scooters were not allowed in that jurisdiction. They could go and sue the city or the county or whoever has authority.


to say I want, you can't prohibit me from running my business and they might sue the city. And that's going to cost everybody money. You've got attorney's fees, court costs, the hours and hours that it takes to go through the court judicial system. And then there is no guarantee when that's even going to happen. There are people that are in the court system on the docket for a year, you know, before their case is even heard.


So it's just the whole litigation process is very cumbersome, expensive, and time consuming. This process allows things to happen quickly. You, you, the two parties agree to have a mediation, a facilitated conversation, and you can get together immediately and start hashing, hashing those things out. So time, court costs, those are all just.


You know, things that off the top of my head were the savings would be.


Joe (14:46.111)

Okay. And just going on that word benefit, you mentioned it earlier, but the community, I don't want to go on all these cliches about community engagement and everything, but the civility topic, which I think we all know is dicey these days. Resident to resident or business to resident. Trying to come to a mediated resolution that maybe no one's completely satisfied with, but they're also not Like risking clear cut just losing and getting nothing that they want.


Can that help the...


Sarah (15:20.042)

Yeah, for sure. In the court system, in litigation, there's winners and there's losers. And mediation is not that. You may not be thrilled with the outcome. You may not get everything that you want. But you go into the process knowing that it's something you can live with. Because the outcome of a mediation is


that you can live with the result. If you can't live with the result, then you don't come to an agreement and then maybe it goes to court. Maybe there's another step to that conflict resolution. But mediation is the ability to say, I am not thrilled with this. I don't like every single thing that I got or didn't get, but I can live with it. I can accept it and I can take ownership of it and I'm willing to accept accountability for this solution.


So there was a, just last week or a couple of weeks ago, a Harvard Business Review article about the nine current trends in professional management business circles. And one of those trends is conflict resolution, the critical skill that managers and employees need to have in today's workforce.


is the ability to resolve conflict because of that division that you're talking about politically, because of all the different things going on in our world right now. There needs to be that skill on hand to be able to do this. And whether local government says, okay, let's tackle this by creating some sort of mediation division. The city of New York, for example, has mediation services.


within the organization to address some of these noise issues, for example. So if that's a service that your city provides, then that, that division or that third party contractor, what it, however you decide to do it, could help you resolve some of those issues before they become big spectacles. And on the front page of the paper, um, and they draw hundreds and hundreds of people into your commission chambers. And you're there till two in the morning discussing.


Sarah (17:39.414)

Pickleball, the pickleball predicament, you know, you're, you have a division that can kind of tackle that before it gets ugly. And the, the outcome of mediation is not always a settlement agreement. I mean, it is just as possible to have an impasse or you don't have an agreement, but even that is beneficial because at least you have a better understanding of the.


each other's perspective and you know how to move forward. Okay, so we weren't able to come to a solution today, but now I better understand what it is you're looking for and you better understand what I'm looking for and we can figure out how to approach those obstacles and keep moving forward.


Joe (18:26.219)

Right, because it's not necessarily a binding agreement. Either side can still do the well, I'll sue you routine and I'll see you in court. All those lines you'd hear on a TV show.


Sarah (18:33.802)

Well, and that's, yeah, and that's kind of the nuanced part of this. In a court mediation, that settlement agreement is, it is, I mean, you have to abide by that or you can have a judgment against you. In this, in a scenario where it's a local government involvement, neighborhood, business to business, whatever the case may be, it's more of a...


Joe (18:44.567)

Yes. OK.


Sarah (19:01.966)

an understanding that, hey, we both came together. We agreed that this is how we think it's going to work. Because everybody took ownership of that, there's a higher likelihood that they're going to comply with it.


Joe (19:16.591)

they're involved and they if they got a little bit of what they won they kind of have to live up to the other side of it and then it's everyone's skin in the game.


Sarah (19:22.558)

Yeah. And, and, you know, the other benefit this to this to aside from coming up with an agreement on this one particular issue, you've now created an environment where there's just a better relationship. There's a better relationship between the neighborhood and the businesses. There's a better relationship between the neighborhood and the government. There's, it's a more harmonious collaborative environment that you create.


with this process, which is going to help you when you're moving forward with other issues that are challenging.


Joe (19:58.903)

Yeah. Okay. Speaking of challenges, what, what can, what have you seen go wrong? What are some scenarios, maybe even that mediation wouldn't work. And I don't necessarily mean to suggest that the local government or the individuals try and just skip it, but what are some challenges that you have seen and are there ways to preempt it or get ahead of them?


Sarah (20:22.722)

One of the main tenants of mediation is that it is voluntary and consensual. So even in the courtroom, if a judge orders a case to mediation, you can say, well, that's not voluntary. The judge is making me do it. But the judge isn't making you behave or act in a certain way once you're in mediation. So you can show up and refuse to participate at all.


So it's still a voluntary and consensual process. So whether you're in the courtroom or in the neighborhoods in your city, there has to be an understanding that you are there to participate in a collaborative discussion. And if one party is not willing to do that or does not accept the fact that they're going to have to compromise, the fact that


they're not going to get everything they want then and therefore refuse to participate in this process, it's not going to work. So, and that's kind of where it gets, that may seem like a minor detail, but it's really a pretty significant detail because local governments are bound by their own regulations and policies and there's only so much flexibility they can offer.


in a process like that, which is understood. So if you're coming together to resolve some sort of conflict or challenge or dispute, and you have a law that says you can't do x, y, and z, or you can only do a, b, and c, and that may be the case. But perhaps out of that process, what happens is you can change the law. Maybe what comes out of that process


that our ordinance as it exists is not working. So therefore this process, this mediated process we're going through can help us come up with some new components for a new ordinance. So there just has to be an open mind. It has to, from both sides, both sides have to have an open mind. Another challenge might be a power imbalance. So I'm thinking interpersonal.


Sarah (22:45.602)

conflicts like within a department or within a division in your organization. If there's a management versus the employee kind of structure, the employee might feel like there's no way I'm going to get anything out of this. I'm the little guy and I'm up against management, which is really the reason why a third party neutral, impartial neutral is really necessary in those kinds of situations. Because in the impartial neutrals mind, there is no


power imbalance. You've got two parties that are coming together and both parties have to understand that there's going to be a give and take. Management needs to understand that


Joe (23:24.359)

Can you convince in that scenario, can you as the third party neutral, can you convince the employee or even like the resident going up against a big business or local government? Can you actually convince them that it's neutral because it's still might still have that mindset of like, yeah, but the management hired you or the local government hired you. So I don't convince me you're neutral. I don't know.


Sarah (23:47.978)

Yeah, yeah, no, I completely hear you. And that's.


Sarah (23:55.77)

the neutrals talents and skills in mediation will lend towards that. However, there also needs to be that support and that buy-in from.


Sarah (24:14.77)

from the one whose power might be making the other party uncomfortable. So if the government is saying, okay, the local government is saying that we're going to hire a mediator to help resolve this dispute, there needs to be that conveyance from the government that


We are doing this because we are truly interested in coming to a resolution and not imposing our view on to the other party. We want your contribution and we want your participation. So it's a nuance that, that would need to be sorted through, um, from the government to help convey that message.


Joe (25:10.939)

So if there are city county managers out there listening, thinking, hey, we could use a mediator, whether it's an internal conflict, or we've got this issue between the business and the residents, what's the next step? Does it depend on size and scope? Because again, we have medium, big cities, small cities, small towns, small counties. So how, and maybe the digital aspect, like we all figured out Zoom and all those options during COVID that might help instead of having


get these people in the same room, although I figure it might actually be better if they can be face to face, but even digitally, how can a local government go about finding, vetting, hiring third party neutral mediators?


Sarah (25:56.03)

You know, that's an excellent question. In my experience in local government, using this as a fundamental part of a manager's toolkit to resolve conflict is more theoretical. I am not familiar with a bunch of cities that are saying, we already do this. We already provide this service for our neighbors. We already provide this service for our businesses. I'm not aware of anything. I've been a couple of...


examples like I mentioned with New York City. So it's a, as far as I know, it's a relatively, it's a relatively new concept. So I, again, it's, it's a, it has to be an acceptance from the local government that the outcome of this may not be exactly what it would have been had they


done it the normal way, which is staff do the research, staff gather data, and staff come up with a recommendation. You might get a different outcome by using this process. And there has to be an understanding that that's not a bad thing, that that's actually going to prove to be more successful because you've brought in the key people who might oppose this. You've brought them into the process.


to make sure that they're also heard. And that's not suggesting that local governments don't do that. They reach out to stakeholders all the time to get their input. But actually bringing different parties with opposing views together in a room, whether that's a Zoom room or an actual room, and saying, okay, you two parties need to come up with a solution. We need to come up with a solution together. I'm not just going to give you a solution and you tell me what you think about it. I actually want you to participate.


in coming up with this solution so that the most people can benefit from this. So as far as finding a mediator, you asked about finding a mediator. I am a Florida Supreme Court certified mediator. So there's every state has some sort of state Supreme Court probably certification for mediation. So that's one way to find a mediator. There's local government consultants who probably do this sort of.


Sarah (28:16.766)

exercise. It doesn't have to be called mediation. Like I said, some sort of facilitated conversation, a structured, formal facilitated conversation.


Joe (28:27.643)

Okay. Well, I appreciate it. And stage mediation LLC is the website. We'll also link on the podcast page or wherever you're listening to Sarah's calendar. If you want to just book a half hour to ask questions, it's not, you know, we'll give her the plug, but just general questions on you could be, it's not necessarily Florida, wherever else you are, just ask, well, what's the next step? What can I do? How do I vet them? How do I make sure that they have some understanding of the local government process versus just the court system? All those types of questions.


sure Sarah will be happy to help. You can also find her at Sarah Local Gov on Twitter and at Sarah Local Gov underscore on Instagram. Last question, any tips on mediating between a five and three year old? Because sometimes I struggle with that.


Sarah (28:59.779)

Yep, Mark.


Sarah (29:13.644)

Well, bring them both to the table with their favorite candy.


Joe (29:16.257)

And part two, is that any different from sometimes council members? Because it seems like maybe...


Sarah (29:20.878)

Oh my gosh. Yeah, they might be a little less stubborn and set in their ways at three and five. So yeah, I see some pros and cons to doing that mediation over some council members for sure.


Joe (29:35.695)

Yeah, I try to play referee best I can. Well, Sarah, thanks for your time. Last note for the audience, explore the future of AI and local government is the theme of ICMA's two local government re-imagined conferences, April 10 through 12 in Boston, and June 5 through 7 in Palm Desert, California. Early registration discounts are available. So Sarah, thanks again for your expertise on mediation, how local government can start to deploy this as an effective tool. And thanks for your time.


Sarah (30:03.842)

Yeah, thank you.



Guest Information

Sarah Hannah-Spurlock, ICMA-CM, Mediator and Consultant, Sage Mediation | LinkedIn


  1. Mediation is a form of conflict resolution that is less formal than litigation or arbitration.
  2. Local governments can use mediation to resolve disputes between businesses, neighborhoods, or neighbors.
  3. Mediation offers a collaborative and less formal platform for resolving disputes, leading to cost savings and improved community relationships.
  4. Mediation can be a valuable tool in policy and ordinance development, allowing for input from all parties involved.


(Time stamps are an approximation)

00:00 Introduction
00:52 Defining Mediation
02:34 Mediation in Local Government
05:08 Mediation in Noise Complaints
09:05 Benefits of Mediation for Local Government
11:41 Mediation in Policy and Ordinance Development
13:11 Cost Benefit of Mediation
15:15 Mediation and Community Engagement
20:22 Challenges in Mediation
25:56 Implementing Mediation in Local Government
28:26 Finding and Hiring Mediators
29:13 Conclusion


Sage Mediation

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