Palo Alto is plowing ahead with its plan to firm up regulation of local massage practices, but several City Council members said Tuesday night, Feb. 14, that the ordinance proposed by staff itself needs a little massaging.
The new law would require all massage practitioners in Palo Alto to get certified in one of two ways -- either by acquiring a city permit or by earning a certificate from the California Massage Therapy Council (CAMTC), a nonprofit corporation that the state Legislature created in 2009 to better regulate the industry.
Senate Bill 731, the 2009 law that established the California Massage Therapy Council, prohibits cities and counties from regulating the practice of certificate holders, said police Lt. April Wagner. Another law, Assembly Bill 619, went into effect this month, expanding the Therapy Council's regulatory powers and adding new requirements for certificates to be displayed.
The intent of the new law is to provide "uniform regulations statewide" and "eliminate the disparate treatment of massage establishments," Wagner wrote in a report.
She said Palo Alto stopped enforcing some portions of its local ordinance around 1996 in anticipation of state legislation. Now that the new laws are in place, the city is trying to make sure its own rules are aligned with state requirements.
The recent laws have prompted some cities, including Santa Rosa, San Rafael and San Carlos, to stop issuing city permits for massage therapists and to require all massage therapists to be certified by the new agency. Others, including Redwood City and the San Mateo County Sheriff's Office, are now considering doing the same.
Palo Alto intends to offer its therapists both the local and state options. The city permit would require practitioners to go through 200 hours of training. It would also force massage practices to keep logbooks listing customers and the services provided. After numerous massage therapists cried foul about the logbook requirement, the city agreed to specify that police would need a court order to gain access to these records.
"We truly feel the collaboration and compromise on behalf of the city and the massage community that resulted in a very thorough redraft of this ordinance that will well serve the citizens of Palo Alto," Wagner told the council's Policy and Services Committee Tuesday.
But the certification requirement is also rubbing some business owners the wrong way. David Bertlesen, owner of Happy Feet, protested the ordinance change and argued that his business should not be classified as a massage practice but as a reflexology establishment. Reflexology focuses on pressure points on the customer's feet and hands. Happy Feet also offers massages, but the customers' clothes stay on.
Bertlesen argued that the clothing feature sets reflexology apart from traditional massage practices. Because customers don't disrobe, the threat of illicit sexual activity doesn't exist in reflexology, he said.
"The City of Palo Alto should embrace our business model," Bertlesen said. "If every massage establishment was set like ours there would be no sexual misconduct at all."
Several Happy Feet customers also urged the council not to include the establishment in the new ordinance. Beverly D'Urso suggested that the revised ordinance could force Happy Feet out of business. Its workers currently aren't certified.
"We feel strongly against the revision of the Palo Alto massage ordinance," D'Urso said. "The new ordinance will take away our ability to choose the alternative healing techniques we prefer. For some, it will mean no access at all."
The committee agreed that the city should consider an exemption for reflexology establishments, much like other cities have done. Councilmen Sid Espinosa, Larry Klein and Greg Schmid directed staff to return at a later date with language pertaining to certifying these businesses.
But the council also agreed with staff that Happy Feet itself is more than a reflexology practice. Though that's a major portion of its business, Happy Feet also offers massages and should therefore be required to face the same requirements as other massage practices, Wagner said. The committee agreed.
"If they meet the definition of what everyone else is doing, it seems to me they ought to be treated the same," Klein said. "It's a matter of basic fairness."
Committee members also expressed reservations about various portions of the proposed ordinance. Schmid questioned staff about the proposed logbook, while Espinosa wondered whether the proposed ordinance is too broad.
"I'm not sure that I agree that we're at a point as a society and community where we need such broad regulation around this industry in particular," Espinosa said.
But the committee agreed that the new licensing requirements are well worth exploring.
"As a society, we are where we are for good reasons," Klein said. "It's not a perfect solution, but I think the licensing makes sense."