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It's Time for a Referendum on the 21-Only Issue


Iowa City Press-Citizen

October 12, 2006

[Note: This material is copyright by the Press-Citizen, and is reproduced here as a matter of "fair use" for non-commercial, educational purposes only. Any other use may require the prior approval of the Iowa City Press-Citizen.]

An all-star team of Iowa City area movers-and-shakers -- calling themselves the Alcohol Awareness Working Group -- has spent the last few months brainstorming how best to address the Iowa City area's collective drinking problem. The No. 1 answer that these intelligent, diverse, articulate, well-known individuals could come up with, unfortunately, is the one solution that will never get passed by the Iowa City Council: All cities in Johnson County should enact a 21-only ordinance.

We've been here before, and we can just imagine where this is going.

Spurred on by the star power of Hawkeye football coach Kirk Ferentz and University Hospitals CEO Donna Katen-Bahensky, this work group's proposal will help revive discussion of such an ordinance -- a discussion that all but dried up in 2004 when, at seemingly the last minute, the Iowa City Council decided to extend the city's 19-only policy. For the past two years, city staff and public safety officials have found themselves needing to come up with creative, indirect ways of curbing underage drinking -- including stricter fire code enforcement, raising fines for exceeding occupancy levels and redefining the terms under which an establishment can be refused a liquor license renewal.

Because this 10-member work group includes representatives from business, law enforcement, education, faith, health, government, parents, youth and media (including the Press-Citizen's president and publisher, Michael Beck), the Iowa City Council will find itself forced to pay at least lip service to the concerns raised. Members of each of these different sectors of the community will come to council meetings and will present the same arguments for passing the ordinance: enhancing the community's image, allowing for a greater variety of business downtown, increasing public safety, protecting our kids, etc.

After the council begins to listen attentively to such concerns, the bar owner associations will start complaining that their businesses should not be regulated any more than other businesses -- so what if the number of bars has more than doubled in recent memory, the number of coffeeshops has increased almost exponentially. We'll have local developers saying that the bar economy is the only way to keep a vibrant downtown and to change anything would be to put the city's economic structure at risk. Then we'll have the college students arguing that if they don't get to drink downtown, they'll have to drink in dangerous house parties throughout the community.

And then -- if the process is even allowed to go on this far -- the city councilors will back out at the last minute, and everything will return to the status quo.

With all due respect to the Alcohol Awareness Working Group, little is going to change in regard to keeping minors out of the bars if the decision is left only to city councilors.

Instead, we advocate that it's time to open up the debate to the voters at large. Past councilors have said that they voted against the ordinance because the "community" was against it. But this is an issue that tends to polarize different sections of the broader community. Is the "community" the citizens who live here 12 months out of the year or those who are here only for nine months? Is the "community" the more than 2,500 businesses in the area or only the bars?

It's time to turn to the one legal means for measuring what the "community" actually believes: Referendum. We call for a referendum on the 21-only question. The question should be worded as straightforwardly as, "Do you support an ordinance that would restrict anyone under the age of 21 from entering any establishment that earns more than half of its income from the sale of alcoholic beverages?" If supporters fail to raise the minimum number of signatures necessary to advance the referendum (the exact number will depend upon turnout at the next general election), then the proposal will die quietly and we can move on.

If proponents can raise enough signatures but fail to earn a majority of votes, then we can move on.

But if this problem is widespread enough that it attracts a community response that says, "We're tired of living in a community in which the binge drinking among young adults is the highest in the nation," or, "We want to have reasonable bar restrictions that still allow the downtown to thrive," then let's codify that sentiment into a form that doesn't rely upon city councilors staying true to their convictions.