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IA: Iowa House passes Davenport-backed nuisance bar bill

IA: Iowa House passes Davenport-backed nuisance bar bill

Quad-City Times
By Sarah Watson
March 1, 2022

Iowa cities could take bar owners to court to have their liquored license pulled for safety concerns rather than having to rely on state regulators under a bill passed by the Iowa House.

House lawmakers on Monday approved a bill that Davenport city officials say will give cities more control over addressing public safety nuisances stemming form establishments that serve alcohol.

House File 2340 would allow city and county attorneys to sue alcohol establishments for creating a serious threat to public safety and seek a temporary injunction before trial, rather than relying on the Iowa Alcoholic Beverages Division.

Licensed food establishments that sell alcohol, such as restaurants, would be exempt.

Some Iowa lawmakers and Iowa’s restaurant and beverage association say the bill creates an unnecessary second system for complaints and isn’t enforceable.

Davenport tried to deny a liquor license to the now-closed Shenanigan’s Irish Pub at 303 W. 3rd St. because of its public safety history. The city was overruled by the Alcoholic Beverages Division, which is responsible for regulating and investigating complaints about alcohol establishments.

Law enforcement responded to more than 2,000 calls for service to Shenanigan’s over a three-year period, including reports of gunfire and large fights.

The bar closed in 2019 because the landlord ended its lease.

The bill, which heads to the Iowa Senate, states a public safety nuisance exists if “it is established by clear and convincing evidence that an owner, manager, employee, contemporaneous patron or guest of the licensed premises unlawfully discharges a firearm or uses an offensive weapon, assaults another person with a dangerous weapon, or engages in a riot on at least three separate days within any 12-month period, on the premises, on any property contiguous to the premises, or within 500 feet of the premises.”

The bill previously addressed a radius of 1,000 feet of the establishment, but lawmakers winnowed it to 500 feet because of concerns from the restaurant and beverage industry. City officials said the changes still keep the integrity of the bill, which is to provide a path through the court system for local governments to address public safety concerns at alcohol establishments.

Going through local courts, which typically handle nuisance complaints in all other capacities, will bring parity to the process and, hopefully, swifter resolution, Davenport city officials have said in support of the bill.

Should a district court determine a threat to public safety exists, the court could temporarily close the business, revoke its alcohol license or require a change in business practice or operations. It could also require the owner post bond to keep the property open pending final resolution of the lawsuit.

Jessica Dunker, president and CEO of the Iowa Restaurant Association, said the organization is still opposed to the bill as written over concerns that bar-owners or managers would be discouraged to call 911 for emergencies for fear of being flagged as part of the problem.

She said the organization is hopeful the Iowa Senate will put a pause on the bill to allow stakeholders to propose a different solution for addressing issues with nuisance bars, and fix what’s not working with the Alcoholic Beverage Association’s complaint system.

“I think it’s best to fix the system that isn’t working rather than create a second system as an end-run around,” Dunker said.

Sponsor Rep. Ross Paustian, R-Walcott called it “unconscionable” to allow a business with more than 2,000 public safety calls to stay open.

The problem has become more pronounced in communities bordering Illinois, Rep. Cindy Winckler, D-Davenport, said. Illinois cities can suspend liquor licenses indefinitely if there is a public safety issue, she said.

Rep. Rick Olson, D-Des Moines, expressed concerns about holding establishment owners responsible for activity that happens close to but not on the property, and called the bill “classic code clutter.”

Davenport Mayor Mike Matson praised the House’s approval of the bill.

“I’m pleased that it passed the House, and look forward to it passing the Senate,” Matson said.