Monday, August 9, 2010

Our View - Assessing the moral character of bar owners

Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Dec. 21, 2009

Our View - Assessing the moral character of bar owners

Back in February, the Iowa City Council 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.

Back in July, we agreed with the council's unanimous decision to deny the liquor license renewal request for The Field House and its 6-1 decision to deny the request of Etc. We fully expected the bars to appeal the decision to the state's Alcoholic Beverages Division -- especially since they are allowed to hold on to their license throughout the review process -- and we hoped state officials would back up the council's tougher restrictions.

It's too bad, however, that the council failed include a sentence in the ordinance specifying exactly what constitutes a police "visit." If the councilors had added an actual definition -- something like, "In calculating the PAULA rate, the police department shall include only visits to the premises for which the police dispatcher has assigned an activity code of 'bar check'" -- they might have had a better chance of persuading Administrative Law Judge Margaret LaMarche that the new policy was fully within the city's authority to recommend denying liquor license renewals based on the "good moral character" of the bar owner.

Instead, LaMarche ruled Dec. 15 that the council was wrong to rely solely on the PAULA rate when denying the license renewals to the downtown bars. Iowa City Attorney Eleanor Dilkes said the city will request a review of the decision by the administrator of the state's Alcoholic Beverages Division, Lynn Walding, who must approve the administrative law judge's ruling.

While defining "visit" would have saved LaMarche from having to write several pages of her 18-page ruling, it's unclear whether that would have been enough to allow the city to win the first round of administrative review. LaMarche ruled that a bar's rate of PAULA citations "may constitute a pattern and practice of violations that will reflect poorly on the licensee's good moral character," but only if the city then goes on to present evidence that shows "the culpability of the licensee or the licensee's employees with respect to the citations." The raw numbers alone aren't enough.

Denying a license renewal because of PAULA rates, after all, is very different than denying a license renewal because of the number of alcohol sales to minors. The one is a sin of commission in which a bar employee is clearly violating the law. The other is a sin of omission in which bars may have done nothing wrong -- other than to provide a locale in which underage people can enter and get their older friends to buy alcohol for them.

Despite LaMarche's ruling to the contrary, we still think requiring bars to have a less than 1.0 PAULA rate is a reasonable minimum standard. After all, the lion's share of bars in Iowa City seem to be able to abide by it without difficulty. But regardless of who wins the next round of review, the only thing that's certain is that the city isn't going to be able to enforce that standard anytime soon.

We think the city is right to appeal the ruling. But we think the council would be better off exercising some of its clearly recognized authority and declaring 21 to be the minimum age to enter -- let alone to drink in -- an Iowa City bar.

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