Having trouble resolving conflict?

Look to your peers for help.

A new service in Alberta is breaking ground in the dispute resolution field. It’s based on the premise that the road to experience is better walked with a good traveling companion.

The Peer Network for Dispute Resolution is the first of its kind in the conflict resolution area in Canada. It puts elected and administrative municipal leaders in touch with a provincial network of respected peers who have real-world experience in resolving tough municipal issues.

The concept embraces the idea that mentors have a lot to give because they are the voice of experience. Mentors with the Peer Network for Dispute Resolution are available to offer advice, suggest alternatives and provide short-term assistance to help others resolve conflict.

“We hope the Peer Network can help others avoid the pitfalls they may have otherwise fallen into,” says Jack Hayden, President of Alberta Association of Municipal Districts and Counties (AAMD&C). “Municipal staff and councilors have a great deal to learn in the first few years and this program gives them easy access to the support and advice of others who have gone through similar experiences.”

The AAMDC was the instigator of the Peer Network, getting the project off the ground with the help of Alberta Municipal Affairs (AMA), the Alberta Rural Municipal Administrators Association (ARMAA) and the Local Government Administration Association (LGAA).

The idea was formed by the AAMDC’s own Council Conflict Resolution Committee. They recognized what an enormous challenge municipal leaders face every day in their efforts to bring together diverse groups of people and get the job done.

Hayden says the task can seem overwhelming at times, but letting issues go unresolved, or having badly resolved conflict costs an organization, and not just money. It can result in poor decisions, frustrate both council members and administration, and can do significant damage to a municipality’s reputation.

The AAMDC has had great processes in place for some time to look at more creative – and less adversarial – ways of resolving disputes with a minimum of legal intervention. They’ve seen time and again that successfully resolved disputes result in win-win outcomes. This inspired them to find a way to take the best of what they learned to a broader audience. Thus, the Peer Network for Dispute Resolution was born.

“So many of the experiences of municipal politics and processes are similar,” says Hayden. “These experiences, while having different details, have common threads that cross all jurisdictions. Municipal disputes are a unique blend of issues and personalities. Sometimes the conflict is with your own colleagues, so where do you turn for advice? This services provides a network of peers who have lived through this type of experience, and who have some wisdom to share.”

A Dispute Resolution Peer Network Committee oversees the program. The Committee reviews nominations for the Peer Network, and selects respected municipal leaders for two-year appointments. In 2004 – the first time this service is available – six members have been selected from AAMDC, ARMAA and LGAA memberships (see sidebar for profiles of the peer mentors).

Peer mentors participate on a voluntary basis. They receive annual training in facilitation, communication and alternate dispute resolution to enhance their skills and keep them current with today’s best practices. Alberta Municipal Affairs, AAMDC, ARMAA and LGAA share the cost of the program.

Mentors can help in many areas, some of which include public policy issues, interpersonal and intermunicipal relationships, or even something as basic as finding a vision that works for all. They encourage the resolution of issues at the local level, and help explore alternate ways of resolving disputes instead of going to court.

There is no cost to access this service. Those wishing to speak with a mentor can call them directly. A current list of Peer Network representatives will be maintained by the AAMDC.

“What we’re doing is putting the power of knowledge into the hands of municipal leaders to help them help themselves,” says Hayden. “We know this valuable tool will help others find new solutions and make better decisions.

-- Originally published in the Spring 2004 Edition of Rural Routes Magazine (AAMDC)