Conflict Resolution

Advanced Problem-Solving Strategies

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In an interview published in the LA Times a couple of weeks ago, the new Los Angeles city attorney Mike Feuer was asked about his approach to a well-publicized case in which the city has been enjoined from removing personal property that homeless people leave on public sidewalks. (The case is currently on appeal.) His response:

There are elements of this litigation I see as an opportunity to solve a problem. Litigation is rather a blunt instrument and has yet to get to the underlying issues. The fact that there is litigation means there has been a failure of public policy. It’s important to address homelessness in a nuanced way.
I’m committed to striking a balance that enhances conditions for homeless people, protects public safety, assures businesses can operate and improves the quality of life for all our residents. The notice of appeal preserves all our options as we strive to find that balance.

This response is notable first for recognizing that litigation might be a legitimate means of solving a problem, while appreciating its limits for that purpose. Next Feuer shows an interest in identifying the underlying issues that are driving the problem. And finally a commitment to finding a balanced approach to dealing with these issues. All in all, a refreshing and constructive tone for the city’s top litigator.

In response to a follow-up question, Feuer went on to describe more specifically how he would approach these underlying interests, a response bound to warm the hearts of mediators:

There’s a core legitimacy to everyone’s perspective; a zero-sum approach isn’t going to cut it. I have in mind bringing stakeholders here for meetings to try to find common ground, getting people who aren’t listening carefully to each other to start listening carefully.

Most litigators would be only too pleased to regale an interviewer with lengthy explanations of why the city’s position is right and the people who are suing the city are wrong. Indeed, that is what you would expect from the city’s attorney. Feuer is instead careful to explain that both sides have a legitimate perspective. He also strikes a new chord by explaining that the solution is not continued litigation, in which one side will win and the other side will lose, but the underlying problems might not get addressed. (Depending on which side “wins,” either the sidewalks may be littered with abandoned property, or the prized possessions of homeless people will be swept away.)

Instead, what we need to do is get all the stakeholders–that means homeless advocates, business owners and residents–together to listen to one another in an effort to find common ground to solve the problem in a way that allows the city to keep public spaces safe and useable, while treating people who live in those public spaces with dignity and respect. This is a problem in need of a mediated solution.

LA Times photo