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An alternative for disputes in Winnebago County

Mike Rust
Mike Rust

“Despite 25 years of existence, we are still a well-kept secret,” said Michael Rust, Executive Director of the Winnebago Conflict Resolution Center, Inc. (WCRC) in Oshkosh. A pioneer in the area of alternative dispute resolution, the WCRC is a nonprofit organization providing mediation services throughout Wisconsin, free mediation services to residents of Winnebago County, and training in mediation and conflict resolution statewide.

WCRC has nearly 50 volunteer mediators who come from all walks of life: attorneys, professors, business people, heath care workers and more. Mediators are required to attend 40 hours of training, plus 8 hours of observing an experienced mediator, plus 8 hours of co-mediation. However, Rust noted, “Anyone can attend our training sessions; they aren’t just for WCRC volunteers. We get many professionals in the areas of customer service, human resources and health care, for example, who use our training to better perform their jobs.”

January 1, 2016, marked the WCRC’s 25th anniversary. A circuit court judge was instrumental in starting the Oshkosh Conflict Resolution Project, as the WCRC was originally known, and the program has since been expanded to include the entire county. “Our working model has been flexible from the beginning, and many changes have been made along with way. We are constantly looking to do what works best for the judges, our volunteers and the public,” said Rust.

The WCRC is funded by grants from the Winnebago County judges’ administrative budget, the federal Community Development Block Grant program and various other grant sources. Staffers also travel the state offering mediation, leadership and conflict resolution presentations to businesses and organizations that pay a fee for those presentations. Winnebago County provides a rent-free office in the courthouse, but the WCRC pays all other expenses of operation.

Rust is only the second executive director, and is now entering his fourth year with the organization. The center is governed by a 16-member board comprised of judges, court commissioners, law enforcement, city officials, UW-Oshkosh staff and members of the community.

“We average 500 mediations a year. I believe there are more who could benefit from our services but people either don’t know we’re here or don’t know what we offer, so they go to court instead,” Rust said. “We have handled everything from multimillion-dollar corporate disputes to a $26 landscaping bill. We cover the gamut.” He added, “All small claims cases are referred to WCRC, and its involvement has been very effective. One board member, who is a circuit court judge, believes that, without our involvement, the county would have to hire at least one additional court commissioner, so the cost savings to the community is huge.”

“There are mediation programs in Green Bay, Waukesha and Eau Claire that operate much like we do. I think it’s really neat that there are a few of us around, but I truly wish we had more. I wish we were not unique,” Rust said. “I believe there are a lot more disputes out there that could benefit from mediation services.”

In addition to his work as executive director of the WCRC, Michael D. Rust, J.D., is chair of the Dispute Resolution Section of the State Bar of Wisconsin and is the immediate past president of the Wisconsin Association of Mediators. He graduated from Carthage College with degrees in neuroscience and psychology before attending Marquette University Law School. He practiced law for several years before devoting his practice to conflict resolution. He also teaches business law, health care law and ethics, conflict management, organizational consulting, and mediation for multiple universities at both undergraduate and graduate levels.