More Iowa counties, cities adopting 'social host' ordinances

With little progress at Statehouse, communities pursue own rules on teen drinking

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State efforts to pass an ordinance which penalizes adults who allow teens to drink alcohol in their homes or on their property failed this year, but many counties already have passed it and are now expanding their efforts.

A “social host” ordinance has passed in 20 counties and 17 cities in Iowa, which include Linn, Benton, Jones, Washington and Dubuque, and most recently Delaware.

Benton County adopted the ordinance last year, and prevention coalitions are now taking it one step further by providing education and promoting the ordinance in cities and towns within the county.

Jenn Draper, Benton County State Strategic Prevention Framework State Incentive Grant coordinator, said Shellsburg just passed an ordinance two weeks ago, and Belle Plaine and Urbana are reviewing a proposed ordinance now.

How it works

The ordinances vary, but basically, any adult will have to pay a civil penalty for “knowingly” permitting or allowing anyone under age 21 to drink alcohol on their premises or property. The civil fines for violations range from $250 to $750 for the first offense and $500 to $1,000 for second and subsequent offenses.

Washington and Benton counties are the only two counties that have added controlled substances to its ordinances, Draper said. Benton County added controlled substances because assessments revealed teens were using not only alcohol but also prescription drugs, marijuana, tobacco and more recently synthetic marijuana — K2 and bath salts.

Draper said passage of a statewide ordinance has failed in recent years, so Iowa communities are following other states and attempting to pass local laws.

Only 24 states have adopted social host ordinances, but more than 150 cities and counties have laws on the books, according to Mothers Against Drunk Driving. State laws take much longer to draft and pass, so pursuing local laws has become an effective way to combat under aged drinking in communities.

“We’re slowly working into the cities,” Draper said. “Many of the underage parties are on farmland or in rural areas, but some are within a city, and it’s a touchy topic regarding enforcement because some city leaders don’t want to step on any toes (in the county).”

Community support

Draper said community support has been key to bringing cities within the county on board.

Keiaffa Green, project coordinator of Benton County Above the Influence Coalition, said law enforcement, parents and teens all have worked together and been supportive of the ordinance.

“There are some parents hosting parties, but others are against it,” Green said.

Green said they are still trying to get the word out about the ordinance and invite community members to attend social host and initiative meetings noon every third Thursday of the month at the Vinton/Shellsburg District Central Office.

Shania Heckmann, 15, of Shellsburg, said she knows “a lot of kids are drinking and their parents know about it.” That’s why she thinks the social host ordinance is a good idea and why she decided to make a video about the effects of alcohol. She geared it toward graduation parties and it was shown to all the senior classes at Vinton/Shellsburg High School.

“I haven’t drank because it’s illegal and it doesn’t seem right for me to do it so young,” Heckmann said.

Beth Sauer, 18, who just graduated from Vinton/Shellsburg, said a friend got her involved with the Benton County Above the Influence a couple of years ago because of more under aged people drinking at her school.

“I think a lot of young people think they need to drink to fit in,” Sauer said.

Sauer said there were parties during the year where parents have allowed alcohol and even a few recent graduation parties.

Jennifer Husmann, project coordinator of Jones County Safe and Healthy Youth Coalition, said she hasn’t seen much opposition over the ordinance from parents.

Law enforcement response

Jones County Sheriff Greg Graver said that there are some incidents that involve an older child in the home, maybe home from college, hosting a party while the parents are on vacation, but his department in the last four weeks has issued two violations of the ordinance.

“We will have one or maybe, two a week in the summer,” Graver said. “I’m not sure (the ordinance is) a deterrent, but it’s another prevention tool. It does help close the gap between the state law that addresses someone providing the alcohol to minors and those who provide a place for the party. Sometimes, those providing the place didn’t provide the alcohol, so they couldn’t be cited, but this ordinance holds the property owner responsible.”

Linn County Sheriff Brian Gardner said the Linn County ordinance, which was adopted in 2009, is enforced and has been effective but he thinks the situations are similar to what happens in Jones County.

“I think half the time the property owners or parents know and half the time they don’t know (about alcohol),” Gardner said. “This past weekend there was a party at a grandma’s house but grandma was out of state and she wanted the kids out of there. We charged some with possession of alcohol, not the ordinance violation. With summer, the parties will happen more frequently.”

Benton County Sheriff Randy Forsyth said they may have had one party where someone was cited, so far, but before it was adopted in 2012 there were several incidents, which is why he supported the law.

“I don’t know if it was a deterrent,” Forsyth said. “It was well publicized at the time …. maybe that helped. The weather this year may have affected it. Usually, we run across more incidents (of under aged drinking) in the spring and summer.”


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