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Iowa City 21-only ordinance goes to voters... again

Durrie Bouscaren
Iowa Public Radio
Jake Park checks ID's at a bar in downtown Iowa City.

Even on a slow night in downtown Iowa City, ID-checker Jake Park has a system.

“For everyone 21 or older, you get a wristband. 18, 19, 20, they get an X on their hand,” Park said, a senior at the University of Iowa. At ten o’clock, everyone without a wristband has to leave.

Park says there haven’t been too many issues with underage patrons staying late—a ticket is $300 for the first offense.

“Plus the cops always stop in around 9:50 anyways, and hang out in the back. So everyone’s like oh, (expletive) time to go!”

On Tuesday, voters in Iowa City will decide whether they’ll repeal a city ordinance that, for the past 3 years, has forbidden anyone under 21 in bars after 10 pm. This is the second time the ordinance has gone to polls since it was implemented by the city council in 2010.

Supporters say the ordinance has improved public safety and cut down on underage drinking in public. Others argue it’s moved that drinking to nearby house parties. Regardless, over the past three years, Iowa City bars have settled into a routine surrounding the ordinance. Some venues have changed hands.

In June, an owner and a manager of two downtown bars that cater to the younger crowd filed a petition to repeal the ordinance. Josh Erceg of Martinis and George Wittgraf of Union have handed off most of the campaigning to students, including UI sophomore Michael Kessler.

“They can’t fill up their bars because the under agers have to leave at 10, it makes perfect sense why they’d want to be the force behind it all,” Kessler said.

Kessler spoke as a panelist at a debate held Wednesday by the school newspaper and UI student government. 

“I don’t think it has compromised the safety of the community and students,” Kessler said, referring to increased disorderly house tickets. “Drinking has simply moved locations.”

City officials argue that the tickets are due to increased enforcement, and that complaint calls for house parties have actually dropped.

Iowa City Mayor Matt Hayek has been a co-chair of the committee supporting the ordinance since it was challenged in the 2010 election. Hayek says three years ago, Iowa City had become a destination for underage drinkers.

“As a city, we were devoting an inordinate amount of resources, in terms of police time,” Hayek said. “These groups would come in on buses, from not just Cedar Rapids, but around the state and into Illinois, to come to Iowa City.”

Hayek argues that today, the city is safer—911 calls for fights and assaults in the downtown area have declined in the past few years.

“If you compare the 3 years before the ordinance went into effect and the 3 years since, sexual assaults are down 42 percent, burglaries are down 19 percent, fights are down 39 percent, all based on calls to the police. These are remarkable numbers,” Hayek said.

The ordinance affects a very specific group of people—19 and 20 year olds—and only bars that aren’t a restaurant or music venue. In a college town, that demographic is a bit larger. But for UI freshman Rachel Zuckerman, the vote is about more than a night on the town.

“I think there’s a misconception that all the students are voting yes to repeal. I don’t think that’s the case. I think that something that continues to come up is our reputation as a party school, and the effects that’s going to have post-graduation,” Zuckerman said.

If Iowa City votes to repeal the 21-ordinance on Tuesday, the city will have to wait two years to reintroduce it. But by then, a lot of the students voting now will have already graduated.