In what is becoming almost an amusing struggle between city staff and the City Council, how Palo Alto regulates massage therapists once again occupied the time and attention this week of the four-member Council Policy and Services Committee, police and city administrators and a city attorney.
It's a great example of how an issue that no member of the public or City Council had any interest in or concerns over can surface and drain time, resources and money.
A review and re-write of the city's current ordinance regulating massage therapists in Palo Alto was supposedly needed because of a state law that for the first time established a voluntary state certification process that pre-empted local regulation for any therapist or facility obtaining the state certification.
The idea behind the law was to formalize a state-level certification system so that local governments didn't need to craft their own individual regulatory schemes, as many, including Palo Alto, had done decades ago.
Since the state law went into effect in 2009, Palo Alto has simply stopped enforcing those parts of its massage ordinance that were out of compliance.
But instead of amending our local ordinance to accomplish only what was required and in as simple a way as possible, the staff opted to create a major revision that added new requirements.
Adding to the confusion is the fact that most of the city's ordinance would not even apply to any state-certified therapists doing business in Palo Alto.
A year ago, the city staff brought the draft of a new ordinance to an informational meeting of therapists, who especially objected to a section requiring a written log of customers, including the date and hour of each service; the name, address and sex of each patron; the service provided and the technician administering the service.
Then Acting City Attorney Don Larkin and the police, hearing the concerns of both the therapists and the City Council, said that the requirement would be dropped or access limited by requiring court-issued subpoenas to access the logs. They were also asked to figure out how to carve out establishments like Happy Feet, a popular establishment which provides foot and body massage to clothed customers in an open room with other customers.
Fast-forward to Tuesday night, when the City Council's Policy and Services Committee examined a new version of the ordinance that was essentially the same as the one sent back a year ago, including the clause requiring massage businesses to keep records of all customers.
The committee's reaction was proper and swift: all four members agreed that a new ordinance should not include the record-keeping provision and they directed the staff to go back to the drawing board and try again. Councilman Larry Klein called the provision "demeaning." He added, "I think a lot of these provisions assume they're guilty," in reference to current massage operations. "I want to reverse it and make our ordinance as light as possible." The committee is chaired by Karen Holman and includes Sid Espinosa and Greg Schmid.
The problem here is that there is no problem needing to be fixed.
In the last 10 years the police department has logged only 10 complaints of criminal conduct at massage establishments, hardly enough reason to inflict the onerous record-keeping burden on today's practitioners.
Long ago Palo Alto's massage industry shed the image and problems that grew out of the seedy establishments found along El Camino Real in the 1970s.
We don't think the citizens of Palo Alto believe it is necessary for the police department to require practitioners of massage to maintain extensive records of their clients, just on the off-chance that such information might be needed to conduct an investigation.
The council committee's direction was clear and correct: a new local ordinance should be as "light" on regulation as possible and be aimed simply at making our ordinance consistent with state law.
In an era of limited government resources, knowing when to take a minimalist approach to low-priority issues is essential. City management missed their chance to demonstrate that on this one.