Tuesday, March 23, 2010

21 Bar Council Vote Tonight

21 Bar Council Vote Tonight

As Iowa City's perennial 21 bar fight gears up again, the No on 21 forces have settled on a strategic counter-move: petitioning to lower the admission age to 18. Petition supporter and 2009 city council candidate Dan Tallon said last week that supporters had gathered 3,500 signatures in about 48 hours.

University of Iowa President Sally Mason offered plenty of patronizing opinions in a March 12 Daily Iowan interview. "It is about looking for better alternatives to promote a healthy and safe environment in our community." I've been here longer than Mason, and every "better alternative" (Planet X, anyone?) has flopped. Young adults want adult activities, not the same stuff they were doing in high school.

“I’ve gotten a lot of e-mails and notes from community members about their disappointment and displeasure with student behavior," adds Mason. The Love the Hawkeyes and Hancher, Hate the Students crowd dominates normal city elections, and never acknowledges that the students are the lifeblood of our city rather than a nuisance.

Former City Council member Bob Elliott also came out for 21 bars in his Press-Citizen piece. “Philosophically, I favor identifying a standard legal age for being an adult. If you're old enough to join the military and defend our country in wartime, you should be old enough to have a beer.”

For me, that's where the argument ends. But what should that age be? “You might as well place numbers from 18 through about 23 on a board and throw darts at it,” Elliott says. “I've known some people who've exhibited outstanding maturity by age 16 or 17, and others who just never seemed to acquire that quality of being mature.”

My preference is to make it the constitutional voting age, 18. We can better address young adult alcohol abuse, a very real problem I know too well from my own youth, by first acknowledging young adult rights.

“But there are differences between philosophy and reality,” Elliot says. And that reality is federal law that ties highway funding to the 21 year old drinking age. One (non-county) official says (s)he also agrees with me on the principle, but says if (s)he has five minutes with a federal or state official, the drinking age issue isn't enough of a priority to take the limited time.

But it should be a priority. Here's some modest suggestions.

First, officials need to say, on the record, what they really think of the 21 year old drinking age. If they like it, that fact can be shared with young voters. If they disagree, they should lobby on the issue, the way law enforcement and county attorneys did on the unworkable 2000 foot sex offender law. No one on either side, myself excepted, seems willing to take this on.

Next, and there seems to be positive movement on this facet at least the inevitable vote should be as soon as is fair and practical. This fall's general election would be good, and the city's process should be timed and expedited to help this happen. The city set a precedent in 2000 by putting the infamous “Yes means No” First Avenue initiative on the presidential ballot.

Finally, delay implementation of 21 until after the people have voted. Of course, that already happened two years ago. but since the council seems determined to force a do-over, delayed implementation will make it a little easier to swallow.

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