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Woodbury council approves new massage therapy ordinance

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Massage therapist Shufang He received her training from a vocational college in California that went out of business after she graduated. The new ordinance doesn't recognize schools that were once accredited and later closed. Staff photo by Riham Feshir2 / 2

Woodbury Police Commander Jay Alberio held two bulky binders in his hands as he spoke of lengthy investigations involving prostitution at illegitimate massage therapy businesses.

He told a full house at last Wednesday's Woodbury City Council meeting that a new ordinance would help keep illegal activity away from the city.

After nearly three months of discussion, editing the original draft, and talking with stakeholders, City Council approved the final draft of a new massage therapy ordinance Wednesday, Nov. 9.

The regulation will require existing and new businesses to apply for licensure and undergo background checks.

Alberio recalled two prostitution and sex trafficking cases in Woodbury that resulted in months of investigation to prove that illegal activity was taking place.

In one of the cases, four women were living in the back room of the business, he said, and were participating in prostitution while using massage therapy as a cover.

The investigation that concluded in November 2009 resulted in the four women being charged with prostitution, Alberio said.

At another massage therapy business, neighboring tenants were worried prostitution was taking place. But before police could finish the investigation, the business had shut down and moved, he added.

"The reason they shut down and moved is the property manager had a friend that actually went into the business and asked for a sexual favor," Alberio said. "The property manager then evicted the business."

But only 29 days later, that business moved to a new location under a different name and continued operating.

"If this ordinance was in place at the time these businesses started operating in Woodbury, basically they wouldn't have been able to open their doors," Alberio said.

Not everyone agrees, though.

An audience member was concerned the ordinance will only give legitimate therapists more hoops to jump through and hurdles to overcome without getting rid of the problem.

Kathryn Berg, a certified classical homeopath who works in Woodbury and Stillwater, said there is no evidence that suggests states and cities that have similar ordinances in place have eliminated prostitution.

Different practices that require touching the body in a therapeutic way may not fall under massage therapy and may not need regulation, but some may be engaging in prostitution, she said.

"You have to be really aware that it's just a matter of them giving themselves another title," she said. "And then you have to create another ordinance to cover some other unlicensed therapy."

Berg repeatedly referred to Minnesota Statute 146A.

That law created the Office of Unlicensed Complementary and Alternative Health Care Practice in the Department of Health to investigate complaints and enforce disciplinary actions against unlicensed alternative health care practitioners for violations.

She said there is no need for a city license since there is statewide regulation.

But City Attorney Mark Vierling said the law is reactive while the new ordinance is proactive.

"You have to understand it's complaint driven," he said. "It does not certainly involve any aspect of qualifications, current educations, certification, licensing. None of that is there.

"There is no background checks, there is no minimum standards that are adopted by the statute."

Trevor Oliver, attorney for YinYang Health Studios in Woodbury, encouraged the city to consider changing the language of the ordinance that applies to accredited schools. He was unsuccessful.

The ordinance states that licensing will be granted only to those who graduate from institutions currently holding accredited status.

Representing Shufang He, a massage therapist who received her training in a school that closed in 2009, he said students who got their training in an institution that's no longer open should not be penalized.

"If the school was in good shape when the student graduated, that should be sufficient," Oliver said.

But Vierling said many of the schools that close somehow track their students. Additionally, if the institution no longer exists, city staff doesn't have an easy way to prove its accreditation.

He said current certification would give city staff the tools necessary to qualify therapists for the license.

YinYang Health Studios owner Pat Caruso fears the new ordinance close his business.

Caruso said He, who runs the studio, works from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day and doesn't have the time or resources to go back to a currently accredited school to receive her certificate for the second time.

She attended school in California and completed 600 hours of massage courses that were taught in her native language of Chinese.

But after she graduated in 2007, a false transcript and records of one of the vocational college's students was sent to the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork (NCBTMB), which led to the school's closure.

The school is no longer recognized by the NCBTMB.

"Schools go out of business," Caruso said in an interview. "I think that's a terrible injustice."

YinYang Health Studios is located on Weir Drive where a former illegitimate business was previously located. Caruso said he wasn't aware of that when he leased the space.

"That's a very bad coincidence," he said. "Guilty by association."

Caruso is, however, still hopeful that he will reach a resolution with the city to keep his doors open. Massage therapist He has plenty of coursework to prove her training, he said.

Minnesota is one of the few states that doesn't require massage therapy licensing through nationally recognized associations, which is one reason illegitimate businesses seem to be moving here, Alberio said.

Metro suburbs like Bloomington, Oakdale and Cottage Grove have massage therapy ordinances in place. Woodbury's was modeled after those existing ordinances, according to city staff.

The ordinance passed with three out of five votes. Mayor Mary Giuliani Stephens, Council Members Amy Scoggins and Julie Ohs voted for the ordinance, while Christopher Burns abstained due to a conflict of interest. Council member Paul Rebholz was absent.

Council also approved a fee schedule associated with the ordinance that adds up to $500. Fees were reduced by $725 from the original proposal based on city staff recommendations.

"The public has the right to have massage therapists that have the qualifications needed to practice effectively and safely," Alberio said.

Without going through hundreds of pages in the two case files he presented before the vote, Alberio said the public safety department spent months to get to the end result.

"These two cases would speak highly of the extensive time it takes to investigate a case when it's brought to our attention," he said.

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.