Kiss and Pay Up

Each time a neighborhood dispute breaks out in Denver and city officials throw up their hands in despair, they call one man to solve the problem: Steve Charbonneau.

Perhaps it's because Charbonneau's nonprofit agency, Community Mediation Concepts, is easy to reach. One of its two offices is located inside city hall and is rent-free. Or perhaps it's because the city has an exclusive deal with Charbonneau's outfit, having paid him more than $160,000 over the past two years. In fact, "99 percent" of CMC's caseload, Charbonneau figures, comes from the City of Denver.

Whatever the reason, Charbonneau surely impressed his steady employers on May 11 when he brokered an agreement between thirty neighborhood associations and fifteen temporary-labor agencies.

The contract--which has yet to be signed by any of these parties--is the largest of its kind in the city's relatively short history of hiring an outside mediator to solve neighborhood conflicts. The contract also marks the first time that court-ordered fines will be imposed if one side breaches the agreement.

The dispute between the temp agencies and the neighborhood groups has been long and contentious. The loudest cries have been heard along East Colfax near Capitol Hill and Congress Park, where at least five of the agencies are clustered. ("Another Fight on Colfax," June 5, 1997). The companies hire unskilled workers on a day-to-day basis for jobs that mostly involve manual labor. But residents there complain that the workers cash their daily paychecks at nearby liquor stores and then slither into the neighborhoods drunk, noisy and messy. Labor-agency owners argue that the residents are anti-poor classists.

Charbonneau was hired to settle the conflict in May 1998 and has invested, by his account, between 200 and 300 hours on the case--doing interviews, knocking on doors and talking to the two sides individually--plus an additional fifty hours at the negotiation table. Two other mediators from CMC worked on the dispute.

In the end, the labor agencies didn't have to do nearly as much as the neighbors wanted them to. By agreement, they will hang "No Loitering" signs, move pay telephones to the interior of the buildings and provide "adequate" restroom facilities. They also agreed to post a list of check-cashing locations that don't sell liquor. In addition, the contract requires labor businesses to "refuse to employ anyone found loitering in and around Temporary Employment Service premises for 30 days."

The neighbors originally wanted agency owners to drive the laborers back to wherever they came from each day (homeless shelters, in many cases), to trim the operating hours of one 24-hour agency and to force the closure of any business that fails to comply four times.

Two weeks before the agreement was finalized, Capitol Hill United Neighborhoods executive director Tom Knorr remained optimistic about the mediation process, even though he questioned the intent of at least one agency owner. "Parts of the mediation have been good, some parts haven't been so good," Knorr says. "When both sides agreed to this, we agreed to come together in good faith and goodwill. That hasn't always been the case, but we're certainly working with it."

By early April of this year, the city's land-use committee had waited long enough for a solution, and it put the onus on Charbonneau to provide a settlement by the May 11 meeting, one year after he was hired.

Just before the final contract was approved, Jim Hannifin, owner of temp-labor agency Ready Men Inc., told Westword he planned a "major lawsuit" if Charbonneau's proposal forced anything he perceived as an unfair mandate on his business. But when he saw the contract, Hannifin was pleasantly surprised, uttering the oft-used "win-win" platitude to voice his pleasure. "A lot of it was misunderstanding," Hannifin says of the neighborhood conflict. "Our people are not causing problems."

Knorr, however, was not as impressed.
"It's better than nothing," he says of the contract. "At some time, though, there are issues not on the contract that will have to be addressed." Indeed, on page twelve of Charbonneau's agreement, four of the five "unresolved issues" belong to the neighbors: transportation for workers, hours of operation, the "four strikes and you're closed" rule, and the definition of "adequate" restrooms.

Charbonneau, however, believes the contract has set a precedent for solving neighborhood disputes. He's most proud of the clause that forces non-compliers to pay a fine of $2,500, enforceable by Denver's district court. (Fines will be paid to the Metropolitan Denver Homeless Initiative.) "It's a unique concept," Charbonneau says about the fining system. "This opens the doors to unlimited applications when it comes to neighborhoods and businesses in how they relate to each other."

For Charbonneau, negotiating his own contract with the city proved much less labor-intensive. After working in the mediation center for the city attorney's office for two and half years, Charbonneau pitched the idea of a nonprofit organization to mediate neighborhood spats before they reached the litigation stage.

Charbonneau says his brand of mediation nips conflicts before they end up costing the city unknown amounts of time and money. He claims an 85 percent success rate with those who agree to mediation. In the fall of 1997, the city solicited offers from outside mediation groups for the first time; Charbonneau says CMC was the only group to enter a bid.

Since Charbonneau's work is difficult to quantify by an hourly wage, says Lois Court, the city's director of the Office of Neighborhood Response, the two sit down annually to discuss how much the city should pay him.

Court says the formula Charbonneau uses sometimes opens him up to being underpaid. She adds that the labor dispute took a lot of his time, "but that's his risk as an independent contractor to estimate the number of cases he can take on." Although part of Charbonneau's justification for the city's use of an outside agency was so that he could raise grant money, so far he has received only $5,000 in grants for CMC.

Court's Office of Neighborhood Response has two reasons for existing: It is supposed to try and solve complaints and concerns from citizens, and it is the city's official liaison to neighborhood associations. If it sounds a lot like what Charbonneau does, that's because it is.

But when Court's office can't solve a dispute using city resources, it refers the issue to CMC.

The criteria for using Charbonneau, Court says, goes like this: "It's very much at the discretion of the [Office of Neighborhood Response] staff person. [Charbonneau's] people come into the office daily. When we see them, we may just wander over and say, 'Is this something you all can help us with?'" Using Charbonneau's services has become more common lately.

In 1998, when CMC was paid $74,000, the nonprofit worked on 51 cases over the entire year. Since January of this year, there have already been 54 referrals, Court says. This year CMC is billing the city $94,000.

Court acknowledges that "some of those referrals are fifteen-minute phone calls that people say, 'Hell, no! We don't want mediation!' And others are like the temp-labor disputes." The increase in referrals to Charbonneau is credited to a higher number of calls coming into Court's office and the nature of the disputes. "It's a comment on the complexity of our society," Court says. "People just seem to talk to one another less and less and turn to others for assistance. The point is, people are far more hesitant to solve problems on their own."

As for the $20,000 increase in Charbonneau's contract, Court explains, "He's taking a four-fold increase in caseload, but not a four-fold increase in cost [to the city]."

Charbonneau says one of the main reasons he started the nonprofit mediation service was to give participants the impression that CMC was a neutral mediator and not biased toward the city. Considering that his office is at city hall and he relies heavily on the city for work, however, even Charbonneau recognizes that "it's not completely isolated. But at the same time, we work at being one step removed."

Knorr says that even though Charbonneau did not "convey to the [city] as strongly as he could have that neighbors are negatively impacted by certain labor agencies," Charbonneau and his mediators "were absolutely unbiased and stayed very neutral."

For the time being, Charbonneau's success has ensured his job security. "There's no requirement that there be a rebid as long as the city is satisfied with [CMC's] performance," Court says. "That could be a question in the future, but at this point, there's been no discussion of it."

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Justin Berton

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