Riverbank considering massage parlor rules

RIVERBANK -- Less than a year ago police shut down a brothel fronting as a spa. Now, the city is considering tightening its ordinance regulating massage parlors.

Police want legitimate massage therapists to become part of the governing process by considering stricter standards on their businesses.

City Council members Monday night enacted an immediate 120-day ban on issuing massage establishment business licenses so police have time to study the existing ordinance, which was passed in March 2006. Police want to get feedback from massage therapists on the ordinance and see what other cities are doing.

Riverbank's existing ordinance was passed nine months before investigators arrested two women working at K Spa on Santa Fe Road. One was convicted of prostitution after she escorted an undercover officer to the back room of the spa and propositioned him. The other was arrested for suspicion of impeding officers' efforts, but later was released after the district attorney opted not to prosecute the case.

The business since has reopened under different ownership. The owner is the only employee.

Police Chief Tim Beck figures it will take about four months to study the ordinance, because it will mean collecting input from reputable spas and therapists. Police are seeking input on issues such as increasing the minimum number of instruction hours a therapist must have, to 500 from 250, in order to practice in Riverbank.

"Essentially, a better massage/body works ordinance would serve to protect the community and massage industry from those who are tempted to promote, facilitate or participate in illegal or other dangerous activities," Beck stated in his recommendation to council members.

Police are unaware of anyone trading sex for money in Riverbank and calling it "massage," but Beck said he wouldn't be able to comment on it if he did.

"We are just trying to be proactive," he said.

Riverbank's moratorium comes just as Oakdale's new massage ordinance is going into effect. Oakdale massage therapists, spa owners and police drafted an ordinance this summer after discovering two brothels had been fronting as massage parlors. Oakdale's new ordinance allows for police inspections of rooms.

Another Riverbank neighbor has had issues with brothels. In December, Escalon police worked with other agencies to conduct an undercover sting operation. No one was arrested, but those working at the brothel were forced out of town, Escalon Police Chief Doug Dunford said.

"I think legitimate massage establishments would support this because it would protect them as well," Beck said.

Law enforcement officials in Riverbank, Oakdale and Escalon realized some of the same people were working in more than one city. As they crack down on the problem, it is possible a brothel could move from one town to the next in the same area, police chiefs said. Reviewing Riverbank's ordinance will help ensure it is as strong and, thus, as much a deterrent to prostitution as the next town's.

Bee staff writer Eve Hightower can be reached at 578-2382 or ehightower@modbee.com.