Brooklyn Park explores ordinance to regulate massage therapy

The Brooklyn Park City Council has asked city staff to revise a proposed ordinance regulating massage therapists before the council considers adopting it.

At the request of the police department, city staff researched and drafted an ordinance regulating massage therapists in the city and presented it to the council Dec. 17.

Back in 2009, Brooklyn Park city staff began drafting a similar ordinance but it on hold because the state legislature was considering the issue. But the legislature never passed the proposed bill.

The police department’s renewed interest in the topic was prompted by a string of recent complaints and an August sting operation that resulted in prostitution charges against one of the employees at the Super Spa at 6280 Boone Ave. N. in Brooklyn Park.

Police said the owner’s role in the August case wasn’t clear enough to bring charges. Because neither the city nor the state regulates massage parlors, authorities could do nothing to hold the owner accountable for the alleged illegal activity in the establishment.

In recent years several cities in the metro area have responded to similar problems by approving ordinances requiring massage parlors to obtain operating licenses. Shakopee adopted such an ordinance in September this year.

After getting comments from the Minnesota Chapter of the American Massage Therapy Association and meeting with representatives of local massage businesses, staff proposed an ordinance that would require establishments, as well as individual therapists, to obtain city licenses to practice.

“The proposed ordinance is similar to what other cities are currently using,” Code Enforcement and Public Health Supervisor Jason Newby told the council.

To qualify for a license, each therapist would need to undergo a one-time background check at a cost of $200 and pay a $25-per-year fee. Therapists would have to meet schooling requirements, and city staff would conduct annual inspections of each massage business. An establishment’s license could be revoked for noncompliance or illegal activity.

Because the proposed ordinance would not recognize licenses granted in other cities, some council members felt the individual licensing requirement placed too heavy a burden on legitimate therapists, especially those who might work at multiple locations in multiple cities. Councilmember Rich Gates and Mayor Jeffrey Lunde both expressed such concerns.

“This is only going to affect people who follow rules,” Lunde said. “… I’ve never seen criminals have a problem finding new ways to commit crime.”

Councilmember Bob Mata said the ordinance was too complicated and difficult to enforce. He suggested licensing the businesses would be sufficient. He said the city could shut them down on the second or third violation. Gates and Lunde also seemed to prefer a simpler ordinance that focused on businesses, not individuals.

Director of Community Development Jason Aarsvold said staff had sought to make the ordinance “the least onerous that we could for legitimately operating businesses.” He said staff also tried to make it as simple as possible but found there were many cases that might not be covered by a simpler ordinance.

“There’s a reason why cities are using this ordinance,” he said.

Police Chief Michael Davis defended it as well, saying the goal would be to dissuade criminals from operating in Brooklyn Park and to provide a means of holding owners accountable.

“Right now we have to wait for the (complaint) call and then respond with some type of undercover operations,” he said.

Davis also warned against implementing an ordinance that didn’t include sufficient regulations.

“This is what I predict — if it’s too loose, you’ll have people parading in front of you that own these businesses that will simply say, ‘I had no idea this was going on, please give me one more chance,’” he said. “And then we’ll be going down this road of how many chances. And to me, this is not an ‘oops’ kind of mistake that a business owner makes. … I think the purpose of the ordinance being so voluminous is to weed out … that wiggle room.”

Councilmember Peter Crema agreed with Davis.

“I’m fine with the ordinance,” he said. “Get the owner, get the provider, get the customers. Take them all away. So I’m fine with it being a little overly broad and cumbersome, because I think I prefer it to be a more restrictive and tighter regulation than looser.”

Councilmember Elizabeth Knight echoed Crema’s sentiments.

“We do have a real problem,” she said. “The Twin Cities … rank 13th in the nation for (sex) trafficking. … (Owners) know what’s going on. This happens. It’s pervasive. Many of these women are victims in it against their will. They’re children. So I am for regulation. I am … for giving not one chance. This is really important in our community, and we need to address it.”

Councilmember Mike Trepanier summed up the council’s discussion:

“What I hear is … absolute consensus in terms of the owner (being responsible), and I think what I’m also hearing is no second chance. Then I’m hearing some divergence in terms of the actual individual therapists.”

Trepanier said he’d like to see the ordinance simplified, but only if it could still attain the city’s goal of controlling illegal activity. He wanted staff to consider whether it would accomplish the city’s goals only to require establishments to obtain a license but to implement a zero-tolerance policy.

Because of the differences among council members Gates moved the council continue the discussion after staff had more time to work on the concept of focusing on businesses and not individual therapists.

The council approved the motion unanimously.