County acts on massage parlors

Commissioners OK ordinance tightening rules

By Tyler Graf, Columbian county government reporter

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Clark County has taken an initial step in putting the squeeze on illicit massage businesses.

Commissioners Tuesday unanimously approved an ordinance that will place some new requirements on practitioners of massage therapy and reflexology. The ordinance came in response to concerns about fly-by-night operations that were possibly complicit in providing a venue for illegal sexual activity.

The county's ordinance requires businesses located within unincorporated Clark County provide proof that they and their employees are licensed by the state before the county issues a certificate of occupancy. The rules closely follow those recently put in place in the city of Vancouver.

Anne McEnerny-Ogle, a Vancouver city councilwoman who was one of several residents who had asked the county look into strengthening its regulations, said she was pleased by how the ordinance turned out.

The regulations apply both to massage businesses and reflexologists, a type of therapy that applies pressure to hands and feet. They require all massage therapists and reflexologists be licensed by the state in order to operate in the county. The employees also must have photo identification proving who they are.

"Just because there's a name on (the license) doesn't mean it matches the person," McEnerny-Ogle said.

The issue first arose in the city of Vancouver, where residents of the Shumway neighborhood, including McEnerny-Ogle, raised concerns about massage therapists operating without licenses and the possibility of businesses being used as fronts for human trafficking.

Last year, the city began receiving complaints about some businesses. Vancouver police mounted an investigation and found employees practicing without licenses. Police shut down some of the storefront businesses, while others vanished. The city then tightened its rules.

Jeff Niten, a county planner who worked on the ordinance, said he had talked to a handful of massage businesses and one massage school to notify them of the changes the county planned to implement. Feedback from those businesses was positive, he said, but none responded to the draft ordinance itself.

Thurston County has implemented additional licensing requirements for massage parlors and public bath houses, and Clark County used work done there as a jumping off point for drafting its own ordinance.

Commissioners strongly supported the efforts, saying they wanted to prevent illicit activity from shaping up on unincorporated land. At the same time, they said such an ordinance should not punish legitimate businesses.

Wary Shumway neighbors have said they're concerned that illegal massage businesses will take root wherever regulations are lax. Some have been known to disappear, only to pop up under new ownership, making the regulation of their activity difficult.

Commissioner Ed Barnes addressed that concern Tuesday, saying, "These people are pretty smart about moving around."

Even with tighter restrictions now extending from Vancouver to unincorporated Clark County, there is still work left to be accomplished, McEnerny-Ogle said.

In Vancouver, officials are working with city lobbyist Mark Brown and state Rep. Sharon Wylie, D-Vancouver, to draft potential legislation that would require all licenses for massage therapists and reflexologists to include a photograph of the license holder.