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IC joins towns in push for bar law

BY REGINA ZILBERMINTS | DECEMBER 02, 2009 7:20 AM

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Iowa City officials are joining eight other Iowa cities to encourage state legislators to hold bar owners responsible for what happens outside their doors.

But the collection of bars that dominate downtown Iowa City and regularly draw crowds in the thousands would create a unique obstacle to enforcing such a policy, officials said.

Current state laws allow authorities to hold bar owners responsible if problems outside the bar stem directly from something that happened inside, such as a bartender overserving a patron.

But that connection is difficult to prove.

In areas where the majority of bars stand alone, any problems near the bar can likely be traced to that establishment. But where a problem started can be hard to determine in downtown Iowa City, where 31 bars open up onto public spaces and are crowded closely together.

“It would be a convoluted scenario,” said Iowa Alcoholic Beverages Division Administrator Lynn Walding. “Union Bar shouldn’t be responsible if someone leaves 3rd Base, then gets in trouble in front of Union.”

Walding said the group endorsed the proposal, but felt there should be a set proximity requirement.

The legislation — a priority of the Metro Coalition, of which Iowa City is a member — hasn’t been drafted yet, but several options are on the table.

While officials from some cities want to hold bar owners accountable for every incident on and near their property, another option would require authorities to prove the problem started within that bar, Walding said.

“I can’t take responsibility for everyone,” said Leah Cohen, the owner of Bo-James, 118 E. Washington St.

She pointed out she is already responsible for people if her bar staff overserves them. But she shouldn’t be penalized if someone starts a fight in front of her bar after drinking down the street, she said.

Mayor Regenia Bailey said Iowa City officials, like those in other Iowa communities, acknowledged a need for this bill in the wake of incidents on property surrounding bars.

Los Cocos, formerly at 1928 Keokuk St., closed in August after a shooting in the parking lot. But that was after Iowa City police poured considerable resources into a constant presence outside the bar to deal with a barrage of problems almost every night.

Iowa City police Sgt. Troy Kelsay said no other bar in the city has the problems Los Cocos did. But officials said they recognize ongoing issues on the Pedestrian Mall.

Right now, bar owners are responsible for hiring bouncers to manage the inside of bars, while everything outside the bar’s entrance is the legal responsibility of police officers, Kelsay said.

But when police break down numbers for calls to each bar, it includes all calls to that bar’s address. That means the number could include altercations on the sidewalk in front of a bar, even those that have nothing to do with that business.

For the majority of bars, that doesn’t matter, Kelsay said. But if a bar is in danger of losing its liquor-license based on those numbers, he tries to break down the number into calls related and unrelated to the bar itself.

Similar Legislation failed to pass the legislature last year, but will be reintroduced during this legislative session.


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