County Surrendering Brothel Regulating Authority To State Government

(November 6)  After decades of scandals in which the prostitution industry proliferated in unincorporated pockets of the county, officials, led by clerk of the board of supervisors Laura Welch, this week moved to alter the San Bernardino County Code to surrender to the state the regulatory authority the county once had over establishments that have provided operational cover for brothels.
The county’s action comes after the county’s efforts at specific restrictions were compromised by what Welch characterized as a conflict with more recent state regulations relating to the massage profession. Traditionally, the operators of some of the county’s brothels have masked them as massage parlors.
In a report dated November 4 that accompanied her recommendation for an ordinance amending Chapters 19 and 20 of Division 1 of Title 4 of the San Bernardino County Code relating to massage clinics and massage technicians, Welch wrote, “The proposed ordinance amends Chapter 20 (relating to massage technicians) of Division 1 of Title 4 of the county code by eliminating the massage technician license program and requiring those who wish to provide massage services in the unincorporated areas of the county to obtain certification from the state. The proposed ordinance also amends Chapter 19 (relating to massage clinics) of Division 1 of Title 4 of the county code strengthening local regulation of massage clinics and making such county code provisions comport with recently enacted state law.”
Welch acknowledged that the county has long recognized that massage parlors have been utilized as a front for houses of prostitution.
“Although most massage technician services are legitimate, the historical concern of local governments has been that some massage clinics use massage technicians to engage in prostitution,” Welch stated in her report. “Consequently, the county of San Bernardino has licensed massage clinics and technicians since at least 1981. Many counties and cities similarly regulate massage technicians and clinics.”
Those regulative efforts overlapped with provisions put into state legislation, Welch said.
“In 2008, in response to many complaints that local regulations are burdensome to legitimate massage service providers, the California Legislature adopted Chapter 10.5 of Division 2 of the California Business and Professions Code, which went into effect January 1, 2009,” Welch’s report states. “The state law established the California Massage Therapy Council to oversee implementation and enforcement of the state law. Under this state law, those persons who wish to provide massage services may apply to the California Massage Therapy Council for issuance of a certificate. Such certificate holder would be exempt from any county’s or city’s massage technician licensing requirements.”
The state has again changed its regulatory stance with regard to massage professionals, Welch said.
“The California Legislature, through enactment of Assembly Bill 1147 on September 18, 2014, significantly revised this state law,” Welch’s report states. “The revised law is titled the Massage Therapy Act and takes effect January 1, 2015. The new law establishes more stringent standards of conduct of state certificate holders, even if such conduct does not constitute criminal behavior. Given these more stringent standards and the fact that the California Massage Therapy Council has greater expertise and resources, county staff believes it is no longer necessary or efficient for the county to maintain and enforce its regulations on massage technicians. It would be in the best interest of the public if the county (effective January 1, 2015), discontinues accepting applications for a county-issued massage technician license and instead require all persons who wish to provide massage services in the unincorporated areas of the county to obtain a state-issued certificate. The proposed amendment to the county code accomplishes this change. The proposed amendment to the county code will not limit the county’s ability to ensure technicians comply with state law. The difference under the new system would be that the sheriff’s department or any other inspecting county department would report any problems to the California Massage Therapy Council rather than the clerk of the board, and the California Massage Therapy Council, rather than the clerk of the board, would initiate any suspension or revocation proceedings. The Massage Therapy Act requires the California Massage Therapy Council and local law enforcement and public agencies cooperate with each other. Furthermore, the Massage Therapy Act will not limit in any way the ability of sheriff’s department to investigate massage clinics for potential criminal conduct.”
In recent years, the legitimate massage profession has expanded, with clinics and spas opening in many California cities, including the incorporated municipalities of San Bernardino County. Welch suggested that at the same time, the once flourishing prostitution trade within San Bernardino County’s unincorporated areas has diminished.
“Since enactment of the state certification process, there has been a steady decline in the number of massage technician license applications,” Welch said. “In 2007 there were approximately 106 licensed massage technicians within the county. There are currently 15 massage technicians licensed and the last new license was issued in June 2012.”
Many of the brothels functioning out of massage parlors are or were localized to specific areas where the sex trade could prosper. Once such area is that in and around the Déjà Vu theater in the unincorporated county area abutting the city of Montclair.
The Déjà Vu, which was established as a club featuring topless dancing in the 1980s, became the object of dispute with the county’s planning division more than two decades ago over activity in and around the club, located at the northwest corner of Central Avenue and Mission Boulevard. In 2002, after legal sparring between the county and the club’s ownership, Michigan-based Tollis, Inc., a legal settlement was arrived at by which Tollis agreed to raze the adjoining motel, the Always Inn, which rented rooms by the hour, and to make changes to the landscaping, lighting and maintenance and security of the property in exchange for being able to continue to operate as a strip club for ten years.
In 2012, the county moved to enforce the provision forcing its cessation as a strip club, including holding a planning commission hearing at which Tollis reluctantly acceded to transforming the club into a non-adult entertainment venue or sports bar, while maintaining its liquor license.
Tollis appealed the planning commission’s action to the board of supervisors in October 2012, seeking to reestablish the 7,048 square foot nightclub building at the 1.22-acre site as a strip club by transitioning it into a topless/bottomless dance review that would not feature the availability of alcohol on the premises.
Last month, the county and a lawyer for Tollis gave indication that the issues in the appeal had been resolved, with the county granting Tollis a conditional use permit calling for the change of use from a nightclub with adult entertainment to a nightclub and tavern with on-site sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages and non-adult entertainment, including a sports bar/ comedy club. Despite the closure of the strip club more than two years ago and the county’s action last month, three massage parlors continue to operate within walking distance from it.
There is concern that the county punting the issue of massage parlor regulation to the state will result in an attenuated oversight of potential illicit activity at such establishments, again allowing prostitution to thrive in such venues.
Montclair City Manager Edward Starr indicated his disappointment in the county’s skipping out on its oversight of massage parlors.
“They are backtracking on their authority,” Starr said. “I understand that regulating massage parlors is time consuming and that it makes demands of them and it is much easier to just hand it off to the state. But if the state regulations prove inadequate, will the county then try to reassert itself and bring its authority back? I don’t know. They would be able to do that but it would require them to reschedule it as an item and hold a vote.  It is obviously a decision for the county to make. But the problem in this thing is that when you have neighbors that allow the kind of uses and activity that you are unhappy with and they have given up their authority to regulate it or ability to control it, you are left with those undesirable businesses on your border with their impacts spilling over into your jurisdiction with very few options or no options in how to deal with them. We are obviously unhappy with the type of business the county is allowing to go into that area.”
Starr said he was fully aware of the new legislation, Assembly Bill 1147, but found the county’s assertion that it would prove adequate to alleviate the problems inherent in the proliferation of massage parlors unpersuasive. “Assembly Bill 1147 doesn’t take away from the county’s ability to regulate. From our standpoint, the county stepping out of its regulatory authority does not help in the effort to control undesirable businesses. The state is not going to be providing monitoring. Sacramento is not going to send an inspector to ascertain the legitimacy of a massage parlor 400 miles away. There are many types of massage parlors. Some are legitimate and some are not. When you give up on regulating them, you will see many more of them that are not legitimate.”
Starr said the county’s action in dropping its regulatory role is troubling because “Everyone recognizes the number of massage parlors coming in is getting out of hand.”
Starr said the district in and around the intersection of Mission Boulevard and Central Avenue where the Déjà Vu  was located had been a problem area for quite some time that has garnered plenty of attention from Montclair over the last several decades. From 1998 until 2011, Montclair spent $11 million to make public improvements within the Mission Boulevard Corridor Improvement Project area, which spans along Mission from the Los Angeles County line, a little over a mile-and-a-half west from the Déjà Vu, to Benson Avenue, a little less than a half mile east.
“We have tried to clean up the area to the point of millions of dollars in improvements,” Starr said. He complimented the county for its cooperation in that effort on several fronts.
“They worked with us,” Starr said. “They went to battle with the owners of the Déjà Vu, who hired a lawyer with the expectation of fighting hard. They got the most equitable solution they could in terms of the agreed-upon use for the property. We probably would have done it a little differently.  We had hoped the county would turn that into a residential project but they did not want to get involved in a further legal entanglement with a company that was willing to hire lawyers to fight them all the way. What will go in there now [i.e., a sports bar/comedy club] is better than what was there before.”
Montclair is now left with the assignment of picking up the pieces and moving on. Simultaneously, Starr said he suspected that the county is simply weary of having to tend to not only the Mission Boulevard and Central Avenue District, but the scores of other unincorporated pockets of county property in between or right next to incorporated cities that present land use and social issues that are difficult to deal with. In such cases, Starr surmised, county officials would prefer that the nearby cities simply annex those rough spots and relieve the county of the burden of looking after them. In that way, Starr hinted, the county may simply be neglecting the areas as a way of incentivizing the cities in question to initiate the annexation process.
“The county, more and more, is interested in seeing those pockets go to the cities,” Starr said. “If the zoning allows it, they will just allow them to go in. The county often takes a more lax approach, and regulating massage parlors is such a chore for local governments.”
Starr said the county must also deal with the state’s liberalization of the regulations pertaining to massage parlors. “The state created this monster by loosening the restrictions on massage operations and the county may have finally said, ‘You take over the battle. We’re done with it,’” Starr said.
Historically, San Bernardino County has been a haven for the prostitution trade, with scores of houses of ill repute located along its major thoroughfares such as Highway 66, Highway 395, Old Highway 60, and elsewhere, in both sparsely populated and remote areas as well as in its population centers such as San Bernardino and Ontario. A close relationship developed between many of the brothel operators and county law enforcement, which essentially entailed a semi-institutionalized government protection racket. This circumstance reached its nadir under former sheriff Frank Bland, who initially came into office by campaigning as a reform candidate in 1954, promising to close down the county’s whorehouses. While Bland indeed lived up to that commitment during the first of his seven terms in office, by the mid-1960s he was allowing the flesh trade in the county to flourish in exchange for cash infusions directly into his own pocket as well as into his campaign fund. By the 1970s, the connection between Bland and the purveyors of illicit sexual services had grown so entrenched and casual that he was facilitating liaisons between the county’s elected officials and ladies of the evening, and prostitutes were a featured commodity at his political fundraisers.
In 1978, a crusading deputy district attorney, Bill Parker, undertook a series of prostitution and pandering prosecutions that targeted Bland’s associates. Bland was not himself prosecuted, but the veiled connections between the sheriff’s department and the local sex trade that played out in court contributed to a circumstance that made Bland’s 1982 electoral effort a risky proposition, and he elected to retire rather than risk wide public exposure of his questionable associations.
Welch told the Sentinel that while she understood that massage parlors have been used as fronts for prostitution operations in the county, she had no knowledge of the historical record regarding the sheriff’s department’s association with operators of brothels and bordellos, nor of the entanglements of the county’s elected officals and the sex industry.

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