Barstow Joins County In Surrendering Its Prostitution Regulating Leverage

BARSTOW—(December 9) Like the county of San Bernardino did before it, the city of Barstow is surrendering to the state of California the major tool it has at its disposal to crack down on the proliferation of prostitution.
Last week, the Barstow City Council voted 5-0 to give first reading to an amendment to the city  ordinance relating to massage parlors and clinics. That amendment essentially defers the city’s regulatory reach to the California Massage Therapy Council. The California Legislature, through enactment of Assembly Bill 1147 on September 18, 2014, significantly revised this state law pertaining to massage parlors.  Known as the Massage Therapy Act. the new  state law routes regulation of massage parlors and clinics to the California Massage Therapy Council, which was created in 2008, 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 holders are exempt from any county’s or city’s massage technician licensing requirements.
The action by the Barstow City Council last week, which must be followed up with a second confirming vote known as a second reading to go into effect, was intended, city officials say, to bring the city’s massage therapy ordinance in compliance with the Massage Therapy Act.
Such action on the city’s part was not mandated by the state. Massage technicians and massage parlors could still be subject to local regulation under the act where those massage professionals themselves choose to remain under local authority.  Operators and masseuses would have had the option of either getting state licensing and bypassing local regulations or conforming with local regulations. Barstow’s massage therapy ordinance was originally adopted in 1999 and was amended in 2000.
The Massage Therapy Act takes effect January 1, 2015. The new law establishes standards of conduct for state certificate holders, even if such conduct does not constitute criminal behavior. Given these standards and the consideration that the California Massage Therapy Council has greater expertise and resources, some local officials, including those in Barstow, have reasoned that it is no longer necessary or efficient for the county or city to maintain and enforce their own regulations.
The amendment to the city ordinance shifts the licensing and regulating authority over massage parlors and clinics as well as those that work at such establishments from the city’s planning and land use divisions to the California Massage Therapy Council.
While the Massage Therapy Act does not prohibit a local police department or agency from investigating massage clinics for potential criminal conduct, removing local control over the issuance of massage practitioner permits as previously required could complicate or lessen local authorities’ ability to actually carry out those investigations, as information pertaining to the employees would be reposited into a state data base in Sacramento. Moreover, both Assembly Bill 1147 and state legislation passed in 2008, Senate Bill 731, which created the California Massage Therapy Council, grew out of  complaints that local regulations relating to massage operations  are or were burdensome to legitimate massage service providers.
County officials, including clerk of the board of supervisors Laura Welch, have 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 told the board of supervisors last month.
Some public officials, such as city managers in San Bernardino County cities where prostitution has been a persistent problem, have expressed the view that by liberalizing regulations for legitimate massage businesses, the state may have created leeway for illegitimate ones to flourish
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, Ontario and Barstow. For decades, a close relationship existed between many of the brothel operators and county law enforcement, which essentially entailed a semi-institutionalized government protection racket.
Members of the Barstow City Council, including Councilman Richard Harpole, who retired from the Barstow Police Department as a lieutenant, offered assurances that entrusting the licensing, permitting and zoning authority over massage parlors to the state would not, in the words of Harpole “limit our options against any criminal actions that may occur at these businesses.”

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