21-ordinance passes first of three votes

BY NORA HEATON | MARCH 24, 2010 7:30 AM

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The 21-ordinance is one step closer to becoming law after its first reading Tuesday night.

The ordinance passed its first of three readings by the Iowa City City Council on a 6-1 vote. The measure, which would prohibit those under legal drinking age from entering bars after 10 p.m., must pass two more times.

Of the 50-plus people in attendance, more than 25 spoke on the issue at the meeting, representing both the pro- and anti-ordinance viewpoints.

Councilor Regenia Bailey cast the sole vote against the issue. She said she believes the ordinance regulates outside of the council’s responsibilities.

“I don’t think the local government should play the role of überparent,” she said. “I think a lot of the discussion tonight, to me, has been frankly paternalistic. We’re talking about adults.”

But other councilors contended that it’s a public-health issue the council needs to address.

“The City Council is charged to look out for the health, safety, and welfare of the entire community,” Councilor Mike Wright said. “I will support it until it’s firmly entrenched or until I’m firmly 6 feet under.”

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The crowd opposing the 21-ordinance also brought up health concerns. Many speakers said they worried about increases in sexual assaults and drunk driving if house parties were to replace the downtown alcohol culture.

Alyssa Shubert, an 18-year-old University of Iowa student, told the council she sees overconsumption everywhere, not just downtown. She said she recently witnessed a fellow student vomiting blood in her room in Rienow Hall. The woman had reached that dangerous level of alcohol poisoning before going downtown, and she was left in her dorm room to recover alone, Shubert said.

UI student Katharine Sternecky said house parties would increase the health risks of binge drinking. Party hosts often hesitate to call emergency medical services for fear of legal action, the 19-year-old said.

But Thomas Rocklin, the interim vice president for Student Services, advised the council not to listen to such arguments as, “ ‘Well, they’ll just get fake IDs. Well, they’ll just drink elsewhere.’

“Saying that ‘they’ll just’ assumes a universal response to an intervention,” he said. “Some will. But others won’t.”

Rocklin and other UI administrators, including President Sally Mason, are pushing for a 21-ordinance. In 2007, the university remained neutral.

Councilors who support the move echoed concerns they’ve been voicing throughout the 21-only discussion.

“In the last decade, it’s shown us that numerous piecemeal attempts have been routinely resisted by those who benefit from a continuation of the status quo,” said Mayor Matt Hayek, who was elected to the council in 2007 on a platform that opposed a similar 21-ordinance.

“I’m using the last weapon I have,” said Councilor Connie Champion, who said the council has done “everything” to fix the problem without the 21-ordinance. Champion has previously been one of few local officials who oppose the idea of shutting down the bars to 19- and 20-year-olds.

If the council passes the ordinance early next month, the measure will likely go into effect sometime this spring or early summer.

But opponents will have the opportunity to collect enough signatures to bring the issue to a ballot referendum. As long as the City Council doesn’t delay its final vote significantly, the issue would likely be placed on the ballot for this November’s election.

Champion defended the council’s decision to bring the ordinance up again after the public defeated it in the 2007 election.

She offered a warning to those insistent that the ordinance won’t solve the city’s drinking problems.

“And if your referendum happens to pass, you better come to me with some other ideas because I will bring it up again in two years,” she said.

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