Monday, August 9, 2010

Our View - 21-only still an option for bars with PAULAs

Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Nov. 19, 2009

Our View - 21-only still an option for bars with PAULAs

Last year, we editorialized in favor of reopening a national discussion on just how beneficial it is to keep trying to keep people from drinking until they turn 21. And we still think our nation and state would benefit from discussing the degree to which the drinking age might be contributing to the broader drinking problems it originally was supposed to help solve.

Until that discussion leads to changes in state laws, however, the minimum age to drink in a bar in Iowa is 21. And the law is the law is the law.

Bars that actively serve alcohol to 19- and 20-year-olds are breaking that law. And we think bars that turn a blind eye when of-age patrons pass on drinks to underage friends likewise should be held accountable for the law-breaking allowed to go on in their establishments.

We know that the Iowa City Council isn't likely to bite the bullet and declare all bars to be 21-only. But we're glad councilors at least have taken steps to tighten the standards by which bars are evaluated when their liquor license comes up for renewal.

That's exactly what the council did in February when it voted to include the rate of Possession of Alcohol Under the Legal Age charges as one of the criteria for evaluating liquor license renewal requests. Now, if a bar has an average of more than 1.0 PAULAs per police visit, then the police department automatically recommends the council deny the license renewal request.

This summer, when the council denied license renewal requests from Etc. and the Fieldhouse, we saw a glimmer of hope that the council's action might have altered the local economic environment just enough that bar owners would be looking to negotiate with the council to go 21-only voluntarily.

"For me it would be easier to just be a 21 bar, not deal with 19- and 20-year-olds, not have to worry about PAULAs," said George Etre, owner of Etc., during the July 28 council meeting.

Oh, if only that were true. Instead, both bars have appealed the denial to the state's Alcoholic Beverages Division. And if they don't like the answer there, the bars are likely to appeal the decision through the courts. (It could take years to reach a final conclusion -- years in which the bar gets to keep its license and keep operating.)

Now the council has denied a third renewal request. The Summit, owned by Mike Porter, has a PAULA ratio of 1.92, nearly double the maximum allowed under the council's new standard. Porter not only is appealing the ruling, but he also has filed suit against the city, claiming that the PAULA standard is unfair and unconstitutional. His 21-page lawsuit also argues that standard is illegal because:

• The city has overstepped its authority in determining what constitutes the definition of "good moral character."

• The standard doesn't require a PAULA conviction, only a citation.

• The standard punishes plaintiffs retroactively by considering PAULA citations before the resolution's adoption.

• And the city is intentionally targeting certain establishments.

We disagree with Porter's interpretation of the city's policy and intent, and we're glad to see the city standing its ground by enforcing this very reasonable standard. This summer, Iowa City police reported that only six of the 110 liquor licenses in Iowa City were in jeopardy of having a rate of more than 1.0 PAULAs per police visit for the previous 12 months. Although many of those licenses belong to restaurants, it's clear that the majority of bars in Iowa City have far fewer than 1.0 PAULAs per police visit.

But we do agree with Porter that other bars are likely to appeal the city's decision to the state and through the courts -- especially because they can continue to serve liquor through the process.

But that just seems to be another reason why the city council should exercise its clearly recognized authority and declare 21 to be the minimum age to enter -- let alone to drink in -- an Iowa City bar.

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