Bar owners and police reply to the changed policy


After local police officials spent six months changing bar-check policies, downtown bar owners have mixed feelings about the adjustment.

Rather than having both the Iowa City police and the University of Iowa police check bars for underage patrons, the job has been the sole responsibility of the Iowa City police since June 2014.

Iowa City Police Chief Sam Hargadine said his officers still conduct bar checks — just not as often as they once did.

According to a recent Iowa City police report, there were 31 bar checks conducted in December 2014. That number has steadily decreased since August 2014, which had a reported 189 bar checks. 

“The safety of downtown is our primary concern,” Hargadine said.

By making bar checks less frequent, local police are able to focus on the safety of downtown as a whole, he said.

Dave Visin, the UI assistant vice president for Public Safety, said although the UI police no longer conduct bar checks, they still patrol the area.

“It was more of a focus of wanting to patrol the Pedestrian Mall area,” Visin said. “We will still respond if someone is in a bar and in trouble.”

He said he has observed no significant changes downtown because of the policy switch.

The police report notes that the number of citations in December 2014 was 18 for presence in a bar after hours and PAULA. The 12-month average was 50 tickets per month.

Jim Rinnella, the owner of the Airliner, 22 S. Clinton St., said because of his establishment’s 21-ordinance exemption, police checks haven’t been an issue lately. Nor had they been in the past, he said.

“Because we do such significant food sales, we were given an exemption that we were allowed to have people 19 and up in the building,” he said. “If police come by, we haven’t noticed one way or the other. I haven’t paid attention to the bar checks. Whether the police come in or they don’t come in, we do things legally.”

Rinnella said while the Airliner does have nightlife, the nightlife that it attracts isn’t at such a high volume other establishments may experience.

One such bar that does experience a high number of patrons, the Union Bar, 121 E. College St., has experienced a significant number of bar checks.

“I’ve had 162 bar checks in the last 12 months,” owner George Wittgraf said. “A couple years ago, I had about 300 bar checks. There needs to be a more uniform way of judging these bars.”

Though the policy has changed and the number of bar checks have significantly decreased, Wittgraf is not happy with the results.

“The Mill has had only one bar check, and they are allowed to have 19-year-olds in there all night,” he said. “There’s no rhyme or reason why they’re doing this. All the popular, bigger bars are getting bar check after bar check.”

One major problem Wittgraf admitted to having because of the lack of bar checks is getting his PAULA ratio down.

Bars are able to decrease their PAULA ratios once their yearly amount of bar sales are taken and divided by the number of PAULAs that bar has received. The bar checks allow the PAULA ratio to be calculated.

Designated bars can be considered an entertainment venue, which allows 19- and 20-year-olds to stay after 10 p.m. provided they meet certain criteria, including a PAULA ratio below .25.

“I’m not getting as many visits, so it’s harder for me to get my PAULA ratio down,” Wittgraf said. “I would have a chance to reapply [for an exemption] assuming I’m below a .25 PAULA visit per ratio. These checks are so inconsistent that it’s not fair to any bar to determine if they can keep the exemption.”

The Union Bar briefly had an exemption last year before it was revoked after its PAULA ratio increased.

Despite the effort to make a change to the bar scene and downtown, few people have noticed a difference.

“It doesn’t really affect me one way or another,” Wittgraf said. “I don’t really see a positive or a negative.”

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