AUGUSTA — The state attorney general’s office is sending out an appeal for volunteers to help mediate business and consumer complaints.
Training courses for new volunteers begins May 27, and those who volunteer as mediators make a minimum commitment of six months to the program.
They are expected to work about six hours a week mediating complaints by phone from the attorney general’s Augusta office.
It’s something Michael Pander, 62, of Boothbay has done for the past three years. He first volunteered when he moved to Maine 27 years ago, but had to give it up when it conflicted with his full-time job.
When he retired, he picked it up again.
“I like it because it’s a community service that’s a tad unusual,” he said on Thursday. “It’s mentally stimulating because the situation can get complex, and it’s challenging because as volunteer mediators we have no authority whatsoever. We can’t make anybody do anything or stop doing anything. As mediators, we get people to come to an agreement to settle an issue that has to do with a business-to-private citizen dispute.”
The free dispute resolution service — which handles such matters as warranty issues, housing, motor vehicles, etc. — is provided through the Consumer Protection Division of Maine attorney general’s office.
Information and applications are available online at www.maine.gov/ag/about/volunteer_mediators.shtml.
Pander is one of 20 volunteer mediators, according to Martha Currier, complaint examiner.
“We’ve had as many as 30 in the past,” Currier said. She said three of the 11 people who did the training last fall remain as volunteer mediators. “Folks are interested in learning about it, and sometimes life takes over. They’re volunteers. As we go into summertime, a lot of our mediators who have been here a long time take the summers off.”
Currier estimated that about $400,000 in either money, goods or services were returned in 2013 to consumers who used the mediation service.
She said the full time personnel screen complaints to see if they are appropriate for mediation before the cases are handed off to the volunteers, and that there’s a shortage of those volunteers.
“At this time, a person who files a complaint with our office today has to wait four to six weeks before it’s assigned to a mediator,” Currier said. “We really could use a lot more help.”
Mediators typically have five cases at a time, and if a dispute remains unresolved at mediation, a next step for the consumer would be small claims court.
Most complaints suitable for mediation involve used vehicle repairs and implied warranties, Currier said, explaining that the implied warranty means, in general, that new or used goods bought by a Maine consumer can be repaired or replaced for free within four years if the item breaks and has not been abused by the user. However, the implied warranty specifically does not apply to used cars.
Volunteer mediators are most often retirees, Currier said. She said married couples have volunteered, a cardiologist, a former prisoner of war and active and retired attorneys. Both she and Pander stressed that mediators are not advocates.
Pander was director of safety and security at Bowdoin College before moving on to become a consultant in risk management and loss control.
He compared the mediation process to assembling a puzzle “but the pieces of the puzzle keep changing shape.”
Pander said his cases are those where consumers “receive some sort of resolution with which they’re satisfied that they would be unable to do by themselves,” he said.
He acknowledged that mediation sometimes fails. “Nobody bats 1,000, and there’s no mediation if one side won’t talk.”
Betty Adams — 621-5631