City Council wants local control over alcohol policies


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For Iowa City, drinking is a local problem. And the Iowa City city councilors want more local control over it.

And that tops the list of the City Council's priorities for 2011.

Iowa City officials want a "home rule" approach to regulating liquor licensing, sale, and service.

Councilors discussed the issue at their Monday night work session with area legislators.

The issue arose after the Iowa Alcoholic Beverages Division determined city officials denying liquor-license renewals using establishments' PAULA to police visit ratio was inconsistent with state regulations, City Attorney Eleanor Dilkes said.

She said the goal of the discussion is to ultimately make policy changes at the state level that would allow Iowa City officials to determine their own standards for alcohol-related regulations.

"Different cities have different concerns for establishing liquor licenses," she said. "This would allow the cities some flexibility to address these issues."

One ongoing issue in Iowa City's alcohol policies has been what councilors call a lack of accountability for bar owners.

For example, in order to obtain or keep their licenses, bar owners must maintain what is called "good moral character" under state law. But Councilor Susan Mims said the term is a major concern.

"The state has no definition of good moral character," she said, and the council created the PAULA ratio as a way to define the term.

Rep. Mary Mascher, D-Iowa, said she agreed the guidelines were too vague, and she noted that state officials are waiting for a list of recommendations from the councilors on what "good moral standing" should be.

"I don't think it is unreasonable for them to ask for a definition," she said. "Right now, nothing can be enforced if no one knows what that means."

The issue has been a continuing problem with city officials.

For example, two bars retained their liquor licenses in December 2009 after an administrative judge overruled a decision by councilors to deny their liquor licenses because of high underage-drinking rates.

Mascher said a beneficial move for Iowa City would be to build a coalition with Ames and other college towns that are dealing with similar problems.

"If changes were made at the state level, we would support and enforce those," said Tonya Dusold, the communications director for the Iowa Alcoholic Beverages Division.

Additionally, city officials will meet with the Partnership on Alcohol Safety later in December, said Iowa City Mayor Matt Hayek.

Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, said, like Mascher, he is interested in a more clear set of criteria from city officials, but he didn't feel a "sense of urgency" for changing alcohol policies.

"I think that there is some feeling that we should continue to see how the 21-only ordinance … plays out before there is a major push," he said.

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