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UPDATE: Council pumps brakes on Woodbury massage ordinance

After years of dealing with prostitution at some local massage parlors, Woodbury police are proposing an ordinance aimed at protecting the city from attracting more illegal activity.

The new ordinance, which Woodbury City Council decided to table at Wednesday night's meeting, would require existing and new massage therapy businesses to apply for licensing that could cost more than $1,000 in fees.

"Right now in the city there really is no licensing at all," said Public Safety Director Lee Vague. "This is an area that we think the city is in a good position to, quite frankly, pick up where there is nothing on the state level."

Three massage therapists spoke at Wednesday's meeting asking the council for more time to review the new city regulation.

"It looks to me that it's a new thing," said Gigi Decker, owner of A Sensitive Touch in Woodbury, adding that many business owners and massage therapists who will be affected by the ordinance have not had adequate time to state educated concerns regarding the proposal.

Massage Envy owner Gary Meyers said although he was notified of the ordinance three weeks ago, it still wasn't enough time to react.

Woodbury city staff researched other surrounding cities' massage therapy ordinances for comparison and came up with similar language and a fee schedule.

Decker, a certified massage therapist who's worked in various communities across the metro for 25 years, said she would much rather see statewide licensure.

Independent massage therapists often work out of different communities and it would be a hassle to apply for various licensures in each city they operate, she said.

"I'm not opposed to licensing at all because I do think it helps just with basic credentials," she added. "Statewide regulation would protect the public."

Agreeing with Decker was Jeremy Miller, government relations chair for the Minnesota chapter of American Massage Therapy Association.

He said some of the details in the ordinance need tweaking before final approval.

"You are protecting your citizens, but at the same time, you don't want to penalize legitimate businesses," Miller told the council.

Additionally, since the state doesn't have any statutes regulating massage therapists, city fees vary dramatically.

"We see a gigantic variation from one city to the next," he added.

The council immediately agreed with the speakers and decided to table the discussion until next month's meeting. Mayor Mary Giuliani Stephens said there is no rush to pass the ordinance this month.

Council member Christopher Burns suggested that city staff work with Miller, Decker and Meyers, along with other massage therapy businesses, to finalize the ordinance.

The proposed ordinance was originally listed as a consent agenda item, which is part of a routine list of items that council approves at regular meetings after discussing them at length in previous workshops. But the public asked to pull it out of the consent agenda into the discussion portion of the meeting.

The proposed ordinance requires all massage businesses to apply for the city license no later than Sept. 30. Businesses would also have to file renewal applications every year.

But now that it has been tabled to a September meeting, the deadline of the applications will likely change.

Vague said police are not currently concerned about illegal activity at any of the existing massage parlors.

"But it wouldn't surprise me that at any given time there is one or two that are operating in the city," Vague said. "That seems to be what we have found over the last couple of years."

The proposed ordinance comes amid at least two years of investigating different Woodbury massage parlors for prostitution.

The ordinance would act as a tool to eliminate the time spent on those investigations that often take weeks to complete due to the fact that undercover officers must go back to verify a pattern of illegal activity.

"And the real trouble is," Vague said, "let's say we verify that there is prostitution going on with a particular employee there. It's difficult for us just with that information alone to prove that the business knowingly is allowing prostitution to go on."

Business owners could simply deny the allegations and say they weren't aware their employees were engaging in prostitution, he added. Or they could move and start over.

"These places tend to regenerate maybe under a different name and in a different strip mall," Vague said. "And there they are again. We end up having to deal with it all over again."

In October 2009, Woodbury police conducted an in-depth investigation that led to the arrest of two employees at Eastern Massage, a parlor that has since shut down as a result of the sting.

In May 2011, a woman who worked under the name "Victoria" at Oriental Touch Massage was charged in Washington County District Court with prostitution. It is not clear if that business is still operating.

The new ordinance would allow police to shut down any unlicensed massage businesses without having to conduct a full-blown investigation.

Although the number of suspicious massage parlors in the city is not huge, the volume of prostitution activity is significant enough to adopt an ordinance, Vague said.

But it's not going to solve everything.

"I don't think this is it," he added. "This isn't going to be the panacea for all our prostitution problems, but it's something we need in our toolbox that we can use."

Riham Feshir
Riham Feshir is a reporter and photographer for the Woodbury Bulletin. Her coverage includes Woodbury City Hall, Washington County Board of Commissioners and business news.  Follow Riham on Twitter @RihamFeshir for the latest updates.