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Supervisors skeptical about social host ordinance

By Chris Umscheid
Solon Economist

IOWA CITY– They agree there is a problem with underage drinking and house parties or other gatherings where alcohol is consumed illegally. How to address it, however, is something the Johnson County Board of Supervisors isn’t sure about.
The supervisors met in a joint meeting Thursday, Oct. 24, with the Johnson County board of health to discuss, areas of mutual interest. The first topic was a possible social host ordinance, which the board of health has been researching. Public health director Doug Beardsley and Ashley Moeller with MECCA Services presented the supervisors with a look at what such an ordinance might look like, why they feel it is beneficial and gave a snapshot of underage drinking in Johnson County.
At its core, a social host ordinance penalizes adults– property owners, or tenants– who know that underage drinking is occurring, and allow it to continue or make no effort to stop it. If the social host has taken reasonable steps to prevent the drinking, there is no penalty. In addition, the ordinance does not apply to interactions solely between a minor and his or her parents, or for religious observances.
Beardsley and Moeller pointed out a major health concern related to underage drinking. The brain continues to develop until around age 25, and the last part to develop is the part most affected by substance abuse. They also cited studies showing underage alcohol consumption increasing the likelihood of alcohol abuse or dependency later in life, with attendant health and economic impacts.
The supervisors were then presented a sobering statistic: in 2012, 41 percent of the 11th grade students in Johnson County stated on a confidential survey that they had used alcohol. Twenty percent said they had consumed at least one drink in the prior 30 days, and 14 percent admitted to binge drinking in the 30 days prior to the survey.
Binge drinking was defined as consuming five or more drinks (for males) or four or more (for females) in one sitting.
The positive aspect of the statistics was that “Johnson County looks favorable against the state average,” Beardsley said. Statewide, 48 percent of 11th graders across the state admitted to using alcohol and 26 percent said they’d had at least one drink in the prior 30 days while 19 percent admitted to binge drinking.
“It’s great to be below average, but is that acceptable?” Beardsley asked. “Have we set a community standard (that it is okay for kids to drink)? Can we change it?”
A social host ordinance sends the message that underage drinking is not okay, and that adults have an important role and responsibility to play, Moeller and Beardsley said. They called the ordinance another tool law enforcement officers can use to combat underage drinking, and pointed out three myths related to underage alcohol consumption: that alcohol is harmless compared to other drugs; alcohol is considered to be a rite of passage; and underage drinking is inevitable and is safer if it occurs in a controlled, residential setting. Beardsley said the last myth was not the right message regarding kids and alcohol.
Beardsley said the ordinance, still very much in development, could be a positive start. The number one source for alcohol cited in the survey was parties, with the home as number two; either taking alcohol from home to another location, or parents providing the alcohol.
For law enforcement, trying to nail an adult responsible for these parties has been a challenge. Currently, unless it can be proven an adult provided the alcohol, there is little the law can do to them even if they are aware drinking is occurring, or is likely to occur. To address this gap, 20 counties in Iowa have adopted a social host ordinance. Seventeen cities have also taken this step, with 15 counties in some degree of a planning stage.
Jones County adopted an ordinance on a countywide basis in March 2011. Jones County sheriff Greg Graver, a supporter of such laws, sees it as a valuable tool for law enforcement, and to reduce underage drinking.
“It closed the gap we law enforcement officers were finding,” he said in a telephone interview. “We were seeing parents or older siblings not actually providing the alcohol, but saying, ‘come and live it up.’ We couldn’t prove they were providing, and thus couldn’t charge them.” Graver said in Jones County, much like unincorporated Johnson County, his deputies were finding parties in timber, quarries, garages and other places outside a home. “The social host ordinance addresses all of these.” County conservation officers have even used it when breaking up parties at campsites in the county parks.
A sexual assault at a house party led Graver to pursue the ordinance. A parent was at the residence, upstairs, while the party was going on downstairs. While she was aware of it, there was nothing she could be charged with, he said. A six-to-nine month process saw a coalition formed to put the ordinance together and sell it to the public as well as the Jones County Board of Supervisors.
Graver said busting kids for possession doesn’t do much to stop the problem, but going after adults facilitating it will. “You’re never going to stop (underage drinking), but it does make a dent. If you provide a location, we are going to charge you every single time.” A first offense in Jones County carries a $500 fine, and each subsequent charge goes to $750. “We are tweaking that now,” Graver said. “Instead of the money going into the general fund, we want to put it into a separate account for alcohol prevention efforts.” Graver and others in a statewide coalition have lobbied lawmakers in Des Moines to enact a state law.
At the Oct. 24 joint meeting, Johnson County supervisors met the proposal with skepticism. Supervisor Pat Harney asked about state laws already in place regarding alcohol and minors, with Beardsley echoing Graver’s words about the ordinance, filling in the gap, and establishing a level of responsibility where a gray area currently exists. “It’s not a panacea,” Beardsley said. “It’s just another tool.”
Supervisor Janelle Rettig, pointing to the existing laws, asked, “How many laws do we need? How is this any more of a deterrent?” Board of health member Mike McLaughlin answered.
“It takes away ignorance on the part of the parents,” McLaughlin said. Supervisor Rod Sullivan wasn’t convinced.
“I can’t support anything putting the onus on an adult for something they had no knowledge of or control over. If an adult is a participant, okay. If they own a field, how are they liable? If they own a field and say, ‘have it at,’ okay.”
“We have to be sure it is crafted in such a way to clarify that,” Beardsley replied, reiterating the ordinance would be enacted for those who know there is a party going on, and, while not providing the alcohol, are aware that it is present and being consumed. Assistant County Attorney Andy Chappell said there were, multiple gray areas to be looked at. “It would have to be the board of supervisors who parse out the language,” Chappell said.
Supervisor John Etheredge raised concerns about landowners being held liable for parties occurring away from their residence. “I just don’t want landowners liable if they didn’t know (drinking was occurring on their property). I just don’t see how this will change what’s already under state law.”
Beardsley said the intent is to get at problem properties with a history. and that law enforcement officers have some measure of discretion. “Responsible owners are not trapped,” Beardsley added.
Beardsley said public health officials are just taking a reading on the supervisors’ interest, to see if it was worth pursuing.
Rettig made it clear, she is not interested.
“I don’t want any more laws like this. There is no public clamoring for it,” she said.
Supervisor Terrance Neuzil said it would take a lot to convince him to pass such an ordinance, particularly if it would impact other jurisdictions such as Iowa City, Coralville and North Liberty, who have their own police departments.
“I haven’t felt a real outcry either,” Neuzil said. “Talk to the city councils first, then to us.”
Etheredge said he felt the University of Iowa needs to address the issue. “Apparently it’s not a big deal,” Etheredge said citing numerous examples of underage drinking he’d seen in the dorms. “It puts more onus on property owners to have full 24/7 knowledge.”
Sullivan said he could see some benefit to such an ordinance in the unincorporated areas of the county. However, he also sees it as a tool to be abused, suggesting law enforcement officials could go, “knocking on Section 8 (subsidized housing) doors, seeing a kid with a beer, and its another family without a place to live.” Sullivan said. “I’m afraid it would only be used on poor people,” and added he was okay with the county’s deputies enforcing the ordinance, but not the Iowa City Police Department.
Beardsley thanked the supervisors for their input.
“Obviously we need more time and to do more homework,” Beardsley said.”
Etheredge put the responsibility on the parents to do more to prevent underage drinking by being aware that they could be. “Pay attention. I don’t doubt these (survey) numbers are right. But a social host ordinance won’t decrease them as quickly as parents can.”