- - Sunday, June 19, 2011

CEDAR FALLS, Iowa — Cedar Falls is not known for controversy. The pleasant Midwestern town, mainly known as the location of the University of Northern Iowa, rarely makes news and violent crime beyond college mischief is rare.

But that changed last week after a city council vote ignited a firestorm. The upshot of it is the fire department in this Iowa town won’t have to bust down apartment doors in an emergency any longer because it’ll have the keys.

On June 13, the Cedar Falls City Council voted 6-1 to expand an ordinance requiring lockboxes at commercial and apartment buildings, and many people, locally and nationally, have responded furiously to what they see as an overextension of the government and a threat to privacy.

The council meeting attracted more than 50 citizens, a dozen of whom voiced their opposition, with only one coming out in favor of it. In the tense atmosphere, punctuated by applause, residents voiced an array of complaints, ranging from privacy issues to instances of purported lockbox abuse.

Judd Saul, a Cedar Falls resident and local tea party activist, says he has been in talks with a prominent large organization that he declines to name to sue the city on behalf of its citizens to get the ordinance overturned.

“Every town in America needs to be aware of this,” he says.

A narrower ordinance passed in 2004 without notable opposition, though last week’s expansion has caused an uproar locally and on blogs and social-networking sites far from Iowa.

Whereas the earlier ordinance required lockboxes with keys to apartment buildings with six or more units and businesses with sprinkler systems or unsupervised alarms, the expansion requires apartments with three or more units — meaning essentially every residential building except single-family homes and duplexes — to have lockboxes that the city can access.

Proponents argue that the ordinance, which came at the recommendation of the town fire chief, is a necessary step to ensure safety. They call lockboxes a cost-effective alternatives to breaking down doors in an emergency.

Mr. Saul has been at the forefront of the citizen opposition, producing and posting several videos from council meetings on YouTube.

“My concern is that down the road this will include more property, including residential,” Mr. Saul says. “This issue is also a violation of our Fourth Amendment rights,” he said, noting that the law mandates property owners spend hundreds of dollars to purchase and install lockboxes.

On Facebook, there are several pages dedicated to the Iowa controversy, with the vast majority of the posts disapproving. One page carries the message “Support the citizens of Cedar Falls IA / NO to Socialist Ordinance.”

Nick Morgan, a Facebook user from York, Pa.,, said he sent city officials an email that stated, “any citizen would gladly want their door broken down in case of an emergency. The cost of fixing a door is a small price to pay to retain our rights as individuals to protect and secure our own property.”

Councilman Frank Darrah expressed reservations about the ordinance, but ultimately voted in its favor, saying “one of our priorities is public safety.”

“I think there’s enough gray out there that I trust we as a community will look at it and work towards making it an ordinance that meets the intent and does so without violating the rights of individuals,” Mr. Darrah said, adding that he and other council members had received threatening messages from all across the country as a result of the publicity stirred up.

Councilman Nick Taiber, the sole council member to vote against the ordinance, remains unsold on its merits.

“It’s kind of akin to slapping a government tool in your house. Prior to this we did mandate things like smoke alarms and fire extinguishers, but this is actually a tool for government to use. And other than the tool being an axe or a fire truck, it’s actually a government tool slapped on the face of your house.”

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