The Georgia Planning Act and other statutes authorize the Department of Community Affairs (the Department) to establish procedures and guidelines for mediation or other means of resolving conflicts related to local plans, regional plans, Developments of Regional Impact, Regionally Important Resources and Annexation. Generally speaking, alternative dispute resolution (ADR) is easier, faster, less expensive and less formal than going to court. As required under the Georgia Planning Act, DCA has established a process for handling requests for ADR. There are three main types: facilitation, mediation, and arbitration. These methods share some characteristics and some important differences as well.
As described in the Rules of the Georgia Department of Community Affairs, facilitation is “helping a group with its process, not what it is working on.” A facilitator is typically hired by agreement to assist the group in accomplishing its task by taking over the “process” work from the chairperson or group, and letting group members concentrate on the substantive discussion. He or she helps make sure everyone gets a chance to be heard, manages the flow of the discussion, and keeps the focus on gathering information without rushing to judgment. Facilitation can take the risk out of the environment and allow trust to develop
Mediation is the intervention into a dispute by a neutral third party, called a mediator, who is typically acceptable to all participants. (However, if the parties cannot agree on a mediator, one may be selected for them in some cases.) The mediator's job is similar to the facilitator’s, in that it is not to impose a solution, but to help the disputing parties engage in constructive negotiations so that they can agree on a solution. The mediation process sets ground rules that promote fair play and principled debate. This leads to trust building and better relationships between the disputing parties. By shifting the focus from personalities and emotions to rational considerations of facts, issues, and possible new solutions, the mediator increases the chances of reaching a mutually beneficial settlement. The goal of mediation is a "memorandum of agreement" signed by all parties. This is simply a written document specifying what will be done by each party to implement the solution to the dispute. This agreement may be monitored for good faith compliance by a third party such as an RDC or the DCA.
Mediation may or may not be optional. In some cases the Service Delivery Strategy (SDS) Act allows for a party to a dispute to request mandatory, judicially-supervised mediation. The mediation of SDS conflicts is not a formal function of the Department; but, rather, is handled exclusively by the state judicial system
Arbitration is intended to provide the parties to a dispute an opportunity outside of court to have a complete airing of their claims with a decision rendered by a neutral individual or panel.
Like mediation, the arbitration process is less formal, time consuming and expensive than the legal process, though arbitration is more formal than mediation. Unlike mediation, where the mediator's job is to help the disputing parties engage in constructive negotiations so that they can agree on a solution, the arbitrator’s or arbitration panel’s job is to review the facts and evidence of the dispute, then make findings and recommendations. An arbitration decision does not require agreement between the parties to a dispute, and can be binding upon all parties.
Arbitration may be an agreed-upon method of dispute resolution, or in some cases it may be required, such as by 2007's House Bill 2 in annexation disputes involving land use or zoning conflicts between a city and a county. DCA maintains a pool of trained volunteer arbitors for annexation arbitration panels
Finding Facilitators, Mediators and Arbiters
Other than the pool of volunteer arbiters that DCA maintains specifically for the arbitration of annexation disputes, the Department does not maintain a listing of individuals who are appropriately qualified to offer their services as neutral parties for facilitation/mediation/arbitration. We recommend that local governments use the resources provided by the Georgia Commission on Dispute Resolution for that purpose. It's "Find a Neutral" website contains a list of individuals qualified to assist local governments.