Editorial: City should tweak entertainment exemption


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The public debate on Iowa City’s 21-ordinance has tapered off since the failed effort to repeal it in the last election, but behind the scenes and through meetings between the city and local bars, a different sort of struggle around the ordinance has emerged.

Local bar owners who supported the ordinance’s repeal quickly changed their strategy. The debate now taking place isn’t one of policy but semantics. It comes down to what is and isn’t an “entertainment venue,” a distinction the Iowa City City Council and downtown bars are jockeying to define.

Iowa City residents who showed up at the polls voted by nearly a 2-1 margin in favor of keeping the law, a result that seems to discourage further attempts to dismantle it. If the council hopes to keep the ordinance effective, however, it may have to reconsider the criteria for its entertainment-venue exemption.

Since the ordinance was passed in 2010, various exemptions have been granted to establishments that can demonstrate that their revenues aren’t dependent on the sale of alcohol. This first form of exemption was granted to those whose food sales made up 50 percent or more of their total revenue, such as the Airliner. Underage patrons would be allowed in such venues after 10 p.m. as long as the establishment maintained good standing with the law.

This exemption quickly brought others looking to cash in on the potential revenue that a campus full of underage people could bring. The council, caught in a quandary between preventing underage drinking and supporting downtown businesses, also began granting exemptions to the ordinance for venues that hosted live shows, though only on nights when they did.

Now, as more bars are seeking an entertainment exemption, the question has arisen of what constitutes a “live show”? The council has taken a crack at it with its latest clarification to the ordinance, attempting to define such terms as “DJ” and “producer,” a process that has led some local venue owners to plead their case in the council chambers, putting somewhat dubious emphasis on the effect the ordinance has had on show attendance. In many cases, the real motivations aren’t hard to tease out: For many bars that cater to a younger crowd, an entertainment exemption means more patrons and more money.

At least one city councilor is concerned that the entertainment-venue exemption may be more trouble than it’s worth.

“I was willing to have the exception,” Councilor Rick Dobyns said. “[But] its got to be enforceable. I don’t want to dilute the [ordinance] so much that it doesn’t work anymore.”

We believe these latest efforts by bar owners don’t represent an earnest desire to bring entertainment to Iowa City but instead are simply ways to exploit loopholes in the 21-ordinance before the city cracks down. Yet, this has left the council in a difficult position. How many exemptions can it give alcohol-selling establishments under the pretense of providing entertainment before the integrity of the 21-ordinance is called into question?

There’s an easier way to enforce the ordinance that still allows for exemptions. In addition to being caught serving alcohol directly to those underage, the city can adopt a standard tying exemptions to PAULA charges, which are listed on the Iowa City website alongside monthly bar checks. Past a certain number, the venue loses its 21 exemption.

It’s true that not all PAULA charges are the result of direct alcohol sale to those underage, so this shouldn’t be a zero-tolerance policy. But if downtown establishments want to make the case that they should be treated under the law as entertainment venues and not kiddie bars, then it should be their responsibility to keep underage drinking in check.

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