The city of South Pasadena may have a small town feel, but it is taking a mighty stand against illicit massage parlors. Over the past year, the city that occupies about three square miles has turned into a hot spot for massage parlors, going from having about four massage parlors in 2008 to 19 today. Six are suspected to be illicit. In April, South Pasadena put in place a moratorium on new parlors and city leaders have been vocal about their support of AB 1147, a bill that would give local governments more control over massage parlor regulation.
South Pasadena Mayor Marina Khubesrian says stemming the proliferation of massage parlors is important for the industry, economy, and her city. Today, she testified in front of the State Senate Business, Professions and Consumer Protection Committee in Sacramento. We had a chance to talk to her on Friday prior to the meeting.
This conversation has been edited down for length and clarity.
What was the catalyst behind putting in place the moratorium that was passed earlier this year?
In 2008, a bill (SB 731) was passed that vastly changed the way cities could regulate massage parlors. Massage parlors have been around for decades, and the city had, at that point, about four of them. After the 2008 bill passed, it even further took away our ability to regulate massage parlors without applying the same standards to other professional services like doctors and lawyers. Then what we saw in the city of South Pasadena was a very rapid proliferation of the number of massage parlors. And now, over the years, right before the moratorium we went up to 19 in the city. So, that's a 500 percent increase since then.
The massage parlors were then locating within half a mile of a middle school, for example. That was creating distress and discomfort from parents about the activity that was going on over there because the illicit massage parlors bring in an element of, basically prostitution. There were also concerns about human trafficking.
And we heard about blight in the economic district from merchants who say, "You know, I look out of my shop across the street the neon lights and you know the facility that does with the closed windows and the dark curtains." Massage parlors do not contribute to the vitality of the community, the economic community, and the diversity of our economic community.
What have the reactions been from the massage parlors that are in your city?
There is not an organized push back from the existing massage parlors. We haven't heard at all from them.
We did have a sting operation that our police department conducted about two years ago. They did find illicit activity in at least two of the massage parlors. One of them agreed to a suspension of their business license, the other one did not.
Then there is very quick turnover of ownership. That's what happened with one of our massage parlors that we found to have illicit activity. The owner changed over and the new owner pushed back and said, "I had no idea that this was going on. Why punish me?" That's sort of the pattern and trend, and that makes it very difficult to legally enforce a facility to shut down and to hold the owners responsible.
What are some of the challenges in enforcing the moratorium?
Actually, the moratorium is very easy to enforce. When we had our 19th massage parlor move in and rumors of more massage parlors coming in, we had another outcry, sort of a call of "Let's do something." I can tell you that it has been very well received and I am thankful that our council was able to come to consensus and was able to help me push that through. It has created a breather; everyone is very relieved that it is there. Since the moratorium has been in place, inquiries from massage parlor establishment licensing businesses have come in and we simply say there is moratorium in place and we cannot do it. That's it. So it completely eliminates the possibility of a massage establishment going in with a business permit.
How will this new bill help?
We wanted a complete revamp so we were pushing for the  bill to sunset.
However and or to have as an alternative, we do feel that there is some benefit to certification of education so that each city does not have to do that on their own. We were hoping that would go under the business under department of consumer affairs which currently regulates the licenses for other professions.
What this bill does is it strikes a balance between allowing local governments to regulate businesses while re-configuring the California Massage Therapy Council, making it smaller, and adding in members so it is not predominated by the massage industry. They will be responsible for the professional standards of the individual massage professionals. We gain more regulatory control over the business in such things like zoning, permitting, and standards that we can apply just to the industry to the massage parlor establishment without having to apply those same standards without having to apply them to the other professions, which doesn't make sense. We are willing to support this bill as long as we have the ability to regulate locally and give California Massage Therapy Council, the new reconfigured version of it, the opportunity to step up its game and to continue a centralized certification.
Why is this issue important for cities across California?
It is important because what has happened between the large regulatory gap created by [the 2008 bill]. The human trafficking aspect in my mind is a very serious issue because it is creating a market for it and the sex trade right here in California. I'm a medical doctor, and I really understand the benefits of a therapeutic massage. I have absolutely no issue with legitimate, healthy, well-trained massage therapists doing the healing art of massage. But I think we all know the difference when we see two different kinds of establishments. We have about six right here in South Pasadena that we suspect from various activities that are illicit. That's a large percentage, so these are the problems that cities are dealing with all created by the inability to regulate and control the number to the point that it is feasible.
Are you optimistic about the bill's passage?
I'm actually feeling very confident about this current bill. When I went to testify for the first joint committee, there was so much testimony from all over California it was such powerful testimony, and we certainly heard the other side. But by far, the impression made very powerfully was that cities were in trouble and we needed help. We absolutely need to have local control over these businesses, and we won't support any bill that won't return local control over local business and to close down business that are illicit. We are willing to compromise and continue to support the state's efforts to standardize or to centralize the certification process, which the bill right now seems to have. We will be watching it carefully.