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City Council should reject 21-ordinance in favor of smaller, more effective measures

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | MARCH 04, 2010 7:30 AM

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Earlier this week, the Iowa City City Council exhumed the corpse of the 21-ordinance from its nearly 21⁄2-year-old grave. The Editorial Board would be happy to see the ordinance rest in peace. The move to raise the minimum bar-entry age is misguided desperation on the part of the City Council and University of Iowa administrators, who support the measure.

“Nothing short of changing the minimum bar-entry age to be consistent with the state drinking age has had a substantial effect,” said Tom Rockling, the UI interim vice president for Student Services, in a statement. “So it’s time to try the most obvious approach to limiting access by minors to alcohol.”

While it’s clear the city and UI should take additional steps to curb the drinking problem — and the Editorial Board has offered numerous suggestions for the city and the university in the past — the ordinance’s comprehensiveness is no substitute for a more nuanced, effective approach.

We oppose the proposed ordinance for a number of reasons.

Raising the age of bar patrons wouldn’t address the root problem with downtown Iowa City: overconsumption, a factor not entirely congruent with age. With overconsumption comes the fights, assaults, and other various crimes that have Iowa City, UI officials, and students worried. While university officials support this measure as a way to curb drinking problems in the student population, banning 18-, 19-, and 20-year-olds is a rather reactive way to curb alcohol abuse problems. The “most obvious approach,” as Rocklin referred to it, will have little effect on the underlying overconsumption issue.

If a 21-ordinance does pass, students will find ways to skirt the ordinance. Other college towns have 21-only bars, and the campus party scene merely moves off-campus to apartments and houses. This will likely have negative implications for police, who will be unable to cover the large swath of house parties.

Furthermore, with an increase in house parties comes a possible increased risk in assaults, rapes, and unregulated consumption by partygoers. While bars downtown are no doubt crowded, there is at least plenty of bar staff and law enforcement concentrated in the area to address problems. House parties offer no such help to students who need assistance for their friends or for themselves.

We admit that a 21-ordinance would reduce congestion in many bars downtown. But while the downtown problem may be bad, at least the problems are concentrated on or near the Pedestrian Mall. Decentralized drinking could pose even more problems.

As Councilor Regenia Bailey told The Daily Iowan, “If you push the bubble down in one place, it just pops up somewhere else.” Bailey was mayor of Iowa City in 2007, when the 21-ordinance failed at the ballot box. She is the only councilor who opposes it this time around.

In addition, continually trying to pass the 21-ordinance disrespects the wishes of citizens who voted the measure down in 2007. Instead, councilors should look to other avenues.

If the councilors really wish to combat the overconsumption problem, for example, they could pass ordinances limiting drink specials that encourage buying large quantities of alcohol. If drinks cost more, students would invariably buy fewer of them. Such a measure would be less heavy-handed than a 21-ordinance and would encourage better drinking habits, rather than mass consumption and possible belligerence. Smaller moves such as this would be more effective in altering Iowa City’s drinking culture.

And while it may seem relatively minor, a 21-ordinance would undoubtedly hurt the music scene. Bars would have to choose between going alcohol-less — irking patrons 21 and older — or not admitting underage music fans. Either way, it would likely cause a decline in revenue for music venues and a weaker music scene.

UI and city officials have said they have no problem with responsible drinking. We challenge them on those sentiments and urge them not to take the easy way out. Instead of supporting the overly broad, non-targeted 21-ordinance, they should attack the overconsumption problem with a more effective, multifaceted approach.


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