The Huntington Beach City Council stopped short this week of limiting the amount of massage parlors in the city after a professional group of masseurs allegedly threatened legal action and offered to help curb illegal activity by identifying illegitimate establishments.
The California Massage Therapy Council, or CAMTC, protested the council's proposed cap of 30 parlors, saying legitimate operators would be unfairly punished for the activities by the less scrupulous ones.
Council members had planned the vote Monday in hopes of combating allegations of prostitution and possible human trafficking. The city has around 60 parlors, but it is unclear exactly how many of them are engaged in potentially illegal activity.
The proposed limits were meant as a temporary fix to limit the parlors' rapid growth and to address complaints, said Police Chief Ken Small.
The proposal was moved from the agenda, however, after the chief executive of CAMTC reportedly brought up the possibility of legally challenging the law.
City Attorney Jennifer McGrath said Ahmos Netanel told her that if Huntington Beach enacted its restrictions, his board would sue.
Small also confirmed the threat of legal action against the city.
Netanel, however, vehemently denied making the threat, saying his organization wants to work with local governments to protect the legitimate operators. His comments to city officials, he said, have been misinterpreted.
"What's important is that CAMTC and the city of Huntington Beach continue to work together to solve the issue of illicit massage establishments in the community," Netanel said in an email. "Our goals are the same."
The CAMTC, a private-public organization, works with law enforcement officials to enforce state laws and identify victims of human trafficking, Netanel said.
Of Surf City's 62 massage parlors, 20 advertise on websites associated with prostitution, according to a city staff report.
In the month of May alone, a record 24 independent massage therapists went to the city to obtain a full-service massage license, Small said.
An investigation earlier this year led to five prostitution arrests, and a May 5 inspection revealed close to 100 city code violations at 17 of the 19 inspected parlors.
Employees performing massages with clients' genitalia exposed and a lack of proper licenses were among the violations.
Some of the business advertise on backpage.com, an online classifieds website that features ads suggesting prostitution as well as legal services.
One of a local parlor features a woman in a pink lace top and described the parlor's therapists as "hot," "sweet" and "sexy girls," while another showed scantily dressed women playing with their hair.
The number of m
assage parlors has grown rapidly in Huntington Beach following a 2009 state law that loosened the grip local governments have on such establishments.
Before 2009, the city limited massage establishments to 10. But that number cap was deleted from city code when Huntington Beach amended its ordinance to reflect the changes of the 2009 legislation.
The number of parlors has since grown by 600% in the last three years, Small said.
A month ago, when city officials began discussing limiting the massage establishments, Huntington Beach had 53, the staff report said.
"We may have 63 today, and on Monday, we might have 65," McGrath said. "The number is very fluid."
During the May 5 inspection, the city found that almost all of the employees at the inspected parlors were immigrants from Asian countries, which led to concerns of human trafficking.
However, no arrests were made for human trafficking or prostitution during that inspection, which included members from city code enforcement, the building and safety departments, the Fire Department and the Orange County Human Trafficking Task Force.
Small said it's often difficult to prove human trafficking because victims are not cooperative and fear retaliation.