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New PAULA policy shows Iowa City officials’ off-target focus

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | JULY 20, 2009 7:15 AM

Clinton Street is a concrete river that divides downtown Iowa City into two worlds.

The Pentacrest sits atop a hill to the street’s west side — a testament to Iowa’s history and higher education.

Bars and restaurants dot Clinton to the east and symbolize the city’s partying and heavy drinking reputation.

However, zoning restrictions and a new zero-tolerance policy on PAULAs the Iowa City City Council recently enacted may soon change that landscape. These policies represent a vision of downtown devoid of underage drinking. This vision is misguided and myopic, and it blinds city leaders from more important matters.

The City Council has followed up its zoning restrictions for new bars with a zero-tolerance policy toward serving minors. Starting July 1, this new policy set a PAULA-to-police-visit ratio standard for bars to meet in order to renew their liquor licenses. The council will automatically deny liquor licenses to bars if police cite more than one person for underage drinking per visit on average over a 12-month-period.

Iowa City police Sgt. Troy Kelsey said the department previously judged each bar on a case-by-case basis before sending a recommendation to the council. The police were often more lenient than the new standard and were willing to work with bar owners to make adjustments as needed so they could renew their licenses. This new standard takes that responsibility from police and places it in the hands of the council. Before, police made their recommendations to the council. Now, council makes the decisions without input from police if the infractions are primarily PAULAs — an infraction Kelsey calls a victimless crime.

This new initiative will no doubt strengthen the zoning ordinance restricting new bars from opening in proximity to existing drinking establishments. The zoning ordinance’s weakness is that it allows a new bar to open in proximity with other bars if it inherits the previous owner’s license. The strict PAULA criteria will now make it easier for the council to shut a bar down and prevent a new one from opening in its place.

The council, by passing these initiatives, shows a zero tolerance for downtown bars, but not bars in general. Downtown has by far the highest density of bars in the city, and police target downtown bars for underage drinking more than any other place, according to the city of Iowa City’s website. Downtown bars receive more police visits than any other bar, with the exception of Los Cocos on the South Side of town. The initiatives would affect downtown more than any other place.

The crusade against PAULAs is blinding the city councilors to more serious crimes. The drinking age in Iowa is 21. People buying and consuming alcohol under that age are breaking the law, but they aren’t the worst elements in the city. Violence in the city is a much more serious problem, and the two are not necessarily related; Los Cocos, which has received more complaints than any other single bar, has only had one PAULA citation in its year-long existence. Bars such as Et Cetera and the Summit do not produce anything near the atmosphere of violence and danger Los Cocos does, but may still lose their liquor licenses strictly because of PAULAs. Los Cocos, which has a well-documented history of violence, recently renewed a six-month license.

Working to cut down on underage drinking and help students form positive alternative habits should be our goal. However, aggressively focusing on under-21 drinkers instead of on violence is off-target. Despite all the moral hazards underage drinking carries with it, it pales to the dangers assaults carry. The City Council should widen its view to the big picture.


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