21-only ordinances should remain local issue

Ask people in Iowa City whether or not the 21-only ordinance is working, and the answers will be a mixed bag.

Nearly five years and two ballot referendums later, the issue of whether adults under the age of 21 should be allowed in most drinking establishments after 10 p.m. remains hotly contested.

Those who support the ordinance point to statistics comparing the three years before and after the ordinance went into effect. There were drops in the number of citations for underage people caught in possession of alcohol and arrests for driving under the influence.

But there also has been a significant increase in disorderly house citations, which skeptics hold as evidence that the root problem (underage drinking) still is thriving behind closed doors.

Medical calls related to heavy alcohol consumption have naturally followed suit, the skeptics say. After all, there is an incentive for a business owner to call paramedics when someone passes out in their establishment, and a disincentive for an individual hosting a private party to do so.

21-only - Ryan Lopez checks patron identification as people come through the door at Studio 13 in downtown Iowa City in this 2010 file photo.
Ryan Lopez checks patron identification as people come through the door at Studio 13 in downtown Iowa City in this 2010 file photo. (Julie Koehn/The Gazette)

Students decry the forced segregation of some friends being able to remain in a bar past 10 p.m. while others must leave or be ticketed by police.

Downtown business owners, for the most part, are pleased with fewer fights, less criminal mischief and an enhanced public perception of safety. Likewise, leaders of neighborhood associations near downtown are pleased with their now quieter streets.

Although the city has tweaked the law to carve out some local areas of compromise — i.e., businesses that receive 50 percent of profits from non-alcohol sales are exempt as are music venues that host concerts past 10 p.m. — there are still those who grumble about how an existing human-rights ordinances had to be changed to embrace the obvious age discrimination.

Whether or not keeping those under 21 out of bars after 10 p.m. has created a dent in the downtown drinking culture so pervasive in Iowa City or merely relocated it to less-safe house parties throughout the community is a debate that will not soon expire. To a lesser extent, it also is an ongoing debate in Ames, home to Iowa State University, which has barred those under 21 since 1991, and in Cedar Falls, home to the University of Northern Iowa, where the city repealed a previous 21-only ordinance for what was termed “ineffectiveness.”

To date, state law has offered little guidance, except to codify the arguably arbitrary age of 21 as the state’s legal drinking age. Deciding whether or not minors should be allowed in licensed establishments has been left to local control.

But that, and the various 21-only ordinances in place, could be changing.

Iowa Sen. Wally Horn, a Linn County Democrat, and Sen. Rick Bertrand, a Woodbury County Republican, have introduced a bill that would prohibit local authorities from adopting ordinances or regulations that would restrict access to people under the age of 19. If signed into law, the bill would effectively strip local laws in Iowa City and Ames, once again allowing anyone age 19 or above access to drinking establishments during all regular business hours.

It is, ironically, a sobering thought for supporters of the Iowa City ordinance. Mayor Matt Hayek described it as “a serious setback.”

The bill has been passed to the Commerce Committee and, thus far, lobbyists are giving it a wide berth. The Iowa State Police Association, Wine Growers Association, Wholesale Beer Distributors Association, Grocery Industry Association and Anheuser-Busch have registered as undecided.

For his part, Horn chalks up the potential change to safety, especially in college towns like Iowa City and Ames, saying allowing 19- and 20-year-olds into drinking establishments would keep them away from less regulated house parties where assaults can occur. Bertrand, who operates three drinking establishments in Sioux City, said the law change would not prohibit individual business owners from prohibiting access by those under the age of 21.

While no one would argue with the state’s ability to dictate such a measure, it is difficult to understand why this particular instance of local control should be questioned.

Iowa history thus far has shown that municipalities have been thoughtful in their adoption of 21-only ordinances. In Ames, for instance, a pilot program to allow 19- and 20-year-olds into drinking establishments showed unsavory results. In Cedar Falls, community members discovered their ordinance produced negative and unintended consequences.

The people of Iowa City have been twice asked to review the city’s 21-only ordinance and have twice voted to keep it, even if by narrow margins. When it was discovered the ordinance was hindering a thriving arts community, city leaders relaxed standards.

It’s unwise for the state to wield unilateral control over an issue that is being handled on the local level in a way that best benefits the individual community. After all, no one knows what the future may hold for such ordinances in the next year or decade.

For my part, I happen to agree with Horn and Bertrand that 21-only ordinances don’t produce a safer environment inasmuch as they redistribute and spread out the underlying problem. Of course, I also believe that anyone old enough to fight and die in a war also should be deemed old enough to purchase and consume an alcoholic beverage.

But no one who works or lives in Iowa City can deny that before the 21-only ordinance, there was an oppressive problem in downtown — one that affected much more than the student population, and couldn’t be hidden under the haze of 25-cent drafts and all-you-can-drink specials.

Perhaps it took city leaders lowering the boom for changes to take place. Perhaps there will come a time when such strict restraints no longer are necessary. But it shouldn’t be up to the state to decide when that time has come.

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on Feb. 15, 2015. Photo credit: Julie Koehn/The Gazette