City Council cites failed attempts at curbing drinking in 21-ordinance push


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Iowa City city councilors say the 21-ordinance is a last resort after years of failed attempts to regulate alcohol consumption downtown.

The most prominent recent examples — the PAULA-per-police visit ratio policy and 500-foot rule, both passed last year — are only the latest in more than a decade of debate over how to best eliminate underage and binge drinking.

Ernest Lehman, a former mayor of Iowa City who retired in 2005, said alcohol issues sprang up two years after he took his seat on the City Council in the early 1990s. At the time, he said, everyone except bar owners supported a 21-ordinance.

Lehman recalled a meeting in which former University of Iowa President Mary Sue Coleman waited two-and-a-half hours to address the councilors and ask that they approve the proposal.

But despite numerous other groups, including the UI College of Public Health, throwing their support behind the regulation, the City Council remained reluctant to pursue it then. Not anymore.
This time, “it’s not going to be a silver bullet, but we may have a more manageable situation,” Lehman said.

Since the issue arose decades ago, the two groups who have protested most have been students and bar owners. This became apparent in 2007, when students turned out in record numbers and voted against the ordinance.

Since 2000, councilors have reviewed a number of proposals, including implementing harsher fines, limiting drink specials, restricting sales to two drinks per person at any one time, and mandating bartenders take TIPS certification, a training program designed to teach them how to prevent alcohol-related problems.

Last summer, councilors decided that any bar in which police cite more than one underage drinker per visit would likely have its liquor-license renewal denied. But earlier this year, an administrative law judge sided with two local bars on the ongoing issue; the city plans to appeal the decision.

Without much success from these attempts, councilors said this week they’re resorting to the 21-ordinance.

Councilor Regenia Bailey said she had been in favor of other proposals, particularly the 500-foot law, but remains opposed to this ordinance.

“If the object is to change behavior, I’m doubtful any law can change that,” said Bailey, the only councilor who said she would vote against it.

Others, such as Mayor Matt Hayek and long-time Councilor Connie Champion, have changed their stances this year.

“They’re in a dangerous business,” said Champion, who was against the idea in 2007 but said bars have already had their chance. “I don’t think they’re acting responsibly.”

Though there has been extensive debate about the role bars have had, assaults, fights, and even slayings linked to intoxication — as well as binge-drinking problems that drew national attention to Iowa City — have pushed councilors to act.

The number of bars has increased significantly in the past decade, particularly on and near the Pedestrian Mall.

And, in Lehman’s mind, that presents the real problem: increased availability and, due to competition, lower prices.

Some city councilors say the issue should involve input from interested parties before they take action.

“I really think there needs to be a lot of dialogue before that vote comes up,” said Councilor Terry Dickens.

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