Laehn answers questions about social host ordinance

Also asks supervisors to discuss a new jail

The Greene County supervisors had no items on the agenda for the Sept. 3 meeting but spent almost an hour listening to and talking primarily about law enforcement issues, including a new jail and the draft social host ordinance.

Sheriff Jack Williams has promoted building a new jail for the past few years. County attorney Thomas Laehn is on board as well, telling the supervisors, “We really need to have a serious conversation about a new jail.”

Laehn mentioned an recent article in the Des Moines Register about a woman who was sentenced to 30 years in prison but was paroled after serving only eight months. He said that’s why he’s focused on having offenders sentenced to the county jail rather than state prison. “That is, as (sheriff) Jack (Williams) would attest, putting a strain on the county jail,” Laehn said.

He said that for every inmate in the county jail there’s another housed somewhere else. He said there are persons who want to serve their jail sentences but can’t because there’s no place available. “I want to flag that as something we need to start thinking about,” he continued.

Sheriff Williams started the meeting with a report that he had talked with two contractors about the basement at the jail and learned a wall is bowing and floor joists are sagging. He left the meeting early to talk with a third contractor, but said “as far as a fix, there isn’t one.”

Supervisor Dawn Rudolph later opened a discussion of the draft social host ordinance Laehn provided the supervisors in June.

According to the Code of Iowa, it’s legal to host a party at which persons ages 18-20 drink alcohol as long as you’re not providing the alcohol. Laehn’s draft ordinance would make it a civil infraction to host a party where there’s underage drinking even if you aren’t the one providing the alcohol. Rudolph asked Laehn’s rationale for the stiffer ordinance.

Laehn answered that several counties, including Boone County, passed ordinances similar to what he’s proposing prior to the state legislation. The state law didn’t supercede the county ordinances.

He said that if the supervisors decide to go forward with the social host ordinance, they’d be making a policy decision. “You would determine that it’s in the interest of the health, safety, welfare and morals of the people of Greene County to extend the state social host law to include 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds,” Laehn explained. “You have the discretion to pass any ordinance that would protect the health, safety, welfare and morals of the people of the county.”

“If Jack (Williams) were here, he’d tell you that it’s his belief that this would be beneficial for the people of Greene County. My job as a lawyer is to draft the ordinance. The policy decision is yours,” he said.

Laehn said he didn’t think the ordinance would be used to “bust” parties, but it could be used in the event that an underage person left a party intoxicated and was arrested, injured or killed, “and the public is outraged. The person who hosted the party currently is immune from any sort of liability. That’s the circumstance when people would say, ‘why don’t we have an ordinance in place? That person who hosted the party should have some liability because this kid died because of a party they hosted.’ In my mind, that’s where the need for a social host ordinance would come,” he said.

Board chair John Muir said, “the hesitancy is the difference between parties that the main purpose of allowing this behavior to go on is monetary, or by whoever’s definition, a legitimate business is promoting it. In the state, there are businesses that are geared for parties, for social gatherings, and does this stop that kind of business activity? It comes down to the interpretation of the sheriff, or whoever is using it.”

Muir asked who would use the ordinance. Laehn answered it could be used by all peace officers, including the Jefferson police department and county conservation officers.
The draft ordinance includes language that if the host of a party takes “reasonable steps” to keep underage people from drinking, or if the host notifies law enforcement and gives them full access to the property, the host could not be fined.

After the discussion, auditor Jane Heun asked if the supervisors want the ordinance on an agenda. Muir asked her not to do that until they’ve had more discussion with Williams.

In other business, Billie Jo Hoskins, deputy auditor for elections, notified the supervisors the auditor’s office will purchase a Unisyn OpenElect mini OVCS at a cost of $7,850. The mini scanner will make counting absentee ballots 10 times faster.

County engineer Wade Weiss reported the secondary roads department is finished hauling gravel and is now patching pavement. He said he ordered 800 tons of salt for the winter.

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