Palo Alto Weekly

News - April 13, 2012

Palo Alto to seek 'lighter' changes to massage law

City reconsiders earlier proposal to require local massage establishments to keep client records

by Gennady Sheyner

Palo Alto is backing away from a controversial proposal to require massage establishments to keep records of all their customers after several business owners and council members said Tuesday night, April 10, that the new rule would go too far.

The city is in the midst of revising its massage ordinance to comply with recent changes in state law, which requires massage therapists to obtain licenses and restricts cities' abilities to regulate establishments. As part of the revision, the Palo Alto Police Department had also proposed including a clause requiring businesses to keep records of all customers, including their names, ages and contact information. The proposal would have required police to obtain a court order before it could access these records.

Police Lt. April Wagner said Tuesday that the point of the record-keeping requirement is to "assist in getting to the truth of allegations." She said the department has received about 10 complaints of criminal behavior at massage establishments over the past decade. But while these types of complaints are relatively rare, city officials are concerned that if Palo Alto doesn't adopt new laws, the city would attract seedy establishments of the sort that existed along El Camino Real in the 1970s.

Charles Cullen, the department's technical services director, told the committee that if the city doesn't revise its ordinance, it would have to repeal its existing one because the ordinance currently on the books does not comply with state law. Wagner noted that all of the cities around Palo Alto have ordinances in place requiring massage therapists to get licenses.

"If we're the one city that doesn't (have an ordinance) among a bunch of cities that do, it is sort of a green light for potentially illegitimate or improperly run businesses to do business in our town," Wagner said.

Wagner said that while sexual crimes are "very rare" at local massage establishments, they do happen.

But at their Tuesday meeting, members of the council's Policy and Services Committee voiced their opposition to the proposed ordinance and directed staff to go back to the drawing board and come back with a less burdensome proposal. Committee members agreed that the new ordinance should not include a record-keeping requirement and that it should contain exemptions for businesses that offer massages to fully clothed clients.

The exemption would apply to businesses like Happy Feet, which offers foot massages and body massages to fully clothed patrons. At prior meetings, David Bertelsen, owner of Happy Feet, argued that the proposed ordinance unfairly targets legitimate businesses.

"There's more opportunity for sexual assaults probably in this Chamber than there is in our business," Bertelsen told the committee Tuesday. "You have strangers on both sides of you most of the time. Not only do you have most of your clothes on, but you're covered with a towel over your abdomen and back areas."

Bertelsen said the problems that the police are trying to prevent prostitution and sexual crimes occur at the type of low-end establishments that haven't existed in Palo Alto for 15 years. Because of economic factors, such establishments are unlikely to return to Palo Alto any time soon, he said.

Barry Katz, a Happy Feet client who lives in the Ventura neighborhood, concurred and called the proposed ordinance "a very thoughtful solution to a problem that doesn't exist." The proposed ordinance, he said, would "make it onerously difficult for them (businesses like Happy Feet) to continue to do something no one is objecting to.

"It's working, and everybody likes it."

The committee agreed. Though members accepted Wagner's argument that the city should adopt a new massage ordinance, the ordinance should be "as light as possible," Councilman Larry Klein said. He called the record-keeping requirement "demeaning" and said that if the city ever has the kind of problems with massage parlors that it did in the 1970s, it could revise the law as needed.

"I think a lot of these provisions assume they're guilty," Klein said, referring to existing massage establishments. "I want to reverse it and make our ordinance as light as possible."

Klein's three colleagues on the committee, Chair Karen Holman and Councilmen Sid Espinosa and Greg Schmid, agreed. They voted to direct staff to return at a future meeting with several revisions, including removal of the record-keeping provision and exemptions for certain non-certified massage practitioners.

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be emailed at gsheyner@paweekly.com.

Comments

Posted by Tom, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 12, 2012 at 10:17 am

> Charles Cullen, the department's technical services director, told]
> the committee that if the city doesn't revise its ordinance, it
> would have to repeal its existing one because the ordinance
> currently on the books does not comply with state law.

And just what does the police department's technical services director know about state law, or local ordinances, concerning massage parlors? Was the police department so devoid of arguments that they had to bring in "bodies" to make their case?

It's a shame that the committee members didn't ask Mr. Cullen just what his expertise might be in this area.


Posted by Naked Feet, a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 12, 2012 at 11:32 am

Does Happy Feet give foot massages to customers still wearing their shoes and socks? If shoes and socks are removed, is that still considered fully clothed?


Posted by PA_Mom, a resident of Midtown
on Apr 12, 2012 at 12:29 pm

Naked Feet,

Read carefully - Bertelsen clearly says - "Not only do you have most of your clothes on, but you're covered with a towel over your abdomen and back areas."

Don't try to be glib just because you can.


Posted by Naked Feet, a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 12, 2012 at 4:39 pm

@PA_Mom - Why do you need to be "covered with a towel over your abdomen and back areas" to get your feet massaged? That's irrelevant.

When you get a foot massage you take off some clothing unless you walked in barefoot.


Posted by Guest, a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 12, 2012 at 8:03 pm

A welcome happy ending...


Posted by Happy Hooker, a resident of Menlo Park
on Apr 14, 2012 at 8:11 am

I don't think Palo Alto is a good place for me to open my illicit massage business. The Palo Alto police clearly have too much time on their hands. They get one complaint a year for 10 years and it gets their knickers in a twist.

And if the State of California wants some law, why don't they just pass it themselves, rather than somehow burden all 58 counties and 482 cities and expect them to create a bunch of new laws.


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