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On 21-ordinance issue, city councilors should look to Lincoln, Neb.

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | APRIL 06, 2010 7:30 AM

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With an expected vote in favor of the 21-ordinance tonight, the Iowa City City Council will be making a preemptive jump. Instead of using the 21-ordinance as a last resort, it will likely opt to enact it without considering alternatives and the ordinance’s implications.

As Monday’s Daily Iowan article “Where age doesn’t consume” points out, there other ways to curb binge drinking. City councilors would be smart to take note.

As outlined in the story, University of Nebraska-Lincoln students didn’t stop drinking, and the bars didn’t stop making money — they just had to “bring it down a notch,” as bartender Alex Johannes put it. If we are to believe UI officials and the city councilors, this is also their intent: not to eliminate drinking but to lower the instances of dangerous binge drinking.

The Lincoln community conquered its problematic drinking culture not with a 21-only law but with deliberate, calculated steps to encourage more responsible habits. It did so while keeping in mind that the nature of a bar is to sell alcohol. “The city of Lincoln respects the bar owners because the bar owners respect the city of Lincoln. It’s kind of a synergistic feeling,” Johannes told the DI.

This is a key difference between the approach used by Iowa City officials and those in Lincoln. In Iowa City, bars and their owners have been treated as the enemy — the cause for all of the drinking problems — and have had little to no say in the fate of alcohol-related issues.

Rather than working with the bars, Iowa City officials have hit owners with a barrage of new ordinances and inspection regulations meant to force their hand. This grapple for power is not in the best interest of the city, the bars, or the university, and it has done little to improve the overconsumption problem. The bars should be treated as part of the solution rather than part of the problem. Accountability must be universal.

Not only did Lincoln deflate downtown binge drinking by working with bars, it successfully tamed even the wildest house parties, seeing a 50 percent reduction in police calls to unruly residences. It managed to accomplish the ends that Iowa City officials strive for while avoiding the most vocal critique of the 21-ordinance — that partying will simply migrate from relatively controlled bars to unregulated house parties.

If UI officials, students, city councilors, the Iowa City police, and the downtown bar owners were to work together, they could accomplish much of the same.

It wasn’t simply developing a more amicable relationship with bar owners that turned the drinking problem around, however. Instead of a broad ban on underage patrons, Lincoln officials enacted a hodgepodge of reforms. They increased the fine for keeping a disorderly house. They penalized landlords. Repeat offenders began facing jail time. Bars voluntarily increased the cost of drink specials, and police officers became a constant presence inside and outside of bars.

It’s been an undoubtedly combined approach. But it has worked.

To put it bluntly, the 21-ordinance is a sloppy way to solve a complex problem. While it appears city councilors will pass the ordinance tonight, they would be wise to reconsider. We’ve offered alternate solutions to 21-only, and Lincoln’s multifaceted approach is an additional one to add to that list.

The Editorial Board stands by its opposition to the 21-ordinance — not to preserve a culture of underage drinking but to encourage Iowa City officials to work more diligently to uproot the underlying causes of dangerous drinking problems. Only then will the overconsumption problem be solved.


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