City Moves Forward on Massage Therapist Ordinance
By Evelyn Pyburn
The Billings City Council has adopted new regulations for the massage therapy business in Billings. The additional laws that will control how business owners provide their services are aimed at tripping up sex and human trafficking criminals who operate under the guise of being massage therapy businesses.
Hearings were held on April 12 and April 26. After months of discussion, debate and revisions the proposed ordinance still encountered proposed amendments during hearings, to make it more palatable to therapists who strongly, and often passionately, opposed the regulations, saying that their legitimate businesses are being misused as a shortcut to address a law enforcement failure to enforce existing laws.
Advocates and law enforcement, however, say they need more tools to deal with a human trafficking problem that has grown so extreme that it draws worldwide attention to Billings. The human trafficking involves luring women from, usually Asian countries, to Billings where they are then enslaved for commercial sex activity. The human trafficking element also poses risks for the abduction of young people locally.
Mayor Bill Cole supported the ordinance saying that as revised, the regulation is considerably less intrusive than what it was in its initial version. City Councilwoman Penny Ronning is credited with have spearheaded the campaign to implement the ordinance, and several proponents applauded her perseverance and efforts.
Only three city council people opposed the adoption of the regulation – Pam Purinton, Danny Choriki and Frank Ewalt – mostly on the grounds that it overly burdens the legitimate operation of small business owners.
City Council Member Danny Choriki said, “It still bothers me that we are using business licenses… it is a bad precedence. …it is still a bad solution… it is too much of a shortcut for law enforcement.”
The council rejected an amendment, proposed by Purinton, that would have sunsetted the ordinance in two years, at which time the council could evaluate whether it was succeeding in its purpose, revise it, renew it or suspend it. Mayor Cole opposed the amendment saying he felt that to believe the law could be terminated in two years would give criminals the idea that if they could just wait it out, the restrictions and additional licensing requirements would go away.
Considering that the problem of prostitution and sex trafficking has been an on-going issue in Billings for decades, to sunset the law in just two years is “a bad idea,” said Councilwoman Kendra Shaw. Two years is not enough time to determine the effectiveness of the ordinance, she said.
That sex and human trafficking has been a long-term problem in Billings was underscored by several of those testifying regarding the ordinance – on both sides of the issue.
“In 1979 Tokyo Sauna opened and everyone knew what it was and it was just shut down in 2019,” pointed out one massage therapist during public comment. She continued, “Prostitution is against the law and there were sting operations… and they never shut them down and shame on our city…”
Now they come “into our legitimate operations and shut us down…. I feel like I am being attacked and put into a position of making me a prostitute at my business, and I have been doing this for 24 years.”
City Administrator Chris Kukulski said that Billings is patterning their ordinance and strategy after that of Aurora, Colorado, a city that claims they were able to eliminate their commercial sex after enacting the ordinance.
His claim was rebutted by one of massage therapists, who said that all that happened in Aurora was that the establishments moved a few miles down the road outside the city limits – a concern that was mentioned several times in the testimony about the potential outcome locally.
Repeatedly citizens declared that the real solution has to come from law enforcement and if that requires the citizens paying higher taxes to get the needed personnel then that is what has to be done.
The current ordinance will be complaint-driven and overseen by code enforcement staff in Billings in cooperation with the law enforcement.
Councilman Frank Ewalt challenged the effectiveness of heightening restrictions on massage therapy businesses.
He read from an earlier statement from Police Chief Rich St. Johns about policing of commercial sex enterprises and human trafficking: “Candidly speaking it is low priority…we know they are out there, but they are difficult to police. Investigations are challenging. Victims fail to cooperate because they do not trust law enforcement. Currently a successful prosecution is beyond our resources, specialization and scope. You are investigating criminals who are business savvy, well-organized, adept at hiding resources, and changing tactics.”
“What will this ordinance change about that?” questioned Ewalt, “Will police all of a sudden have a high priority? Are these businesses not going to be as savvy? Are these businesses going to be less adept at hiding their resources?” Ewalt noted that they have had only one complaint filed.
Complaints are low, conceded St. Johns. It is difficult to get victims to come forward, he said, adding, “This is another tool we use.”
“It is not going to change the scope of what we need to put a case together,” said St. Johns, but he vowed, “If you give us a complaint we will follow up on that.”
The ordinance requires that massage therapists obtain a city license in addition to the state licensing they must have, pass a back ground check, and it dictates hours of operation, staffing, records and bookkeeping, and unlocked doors.
A common complaint from the business owners was that they were not included in the process of trying to develop a solution to the problem, however others said that they were involved in the process and supported the ordinance.
“We have tried to give you examples of things and you just keep shutting us down. I am appalled that you don’t give us credit. Like we don’t know what we are doing. Where is your team work with us? Have you met with all of us? No, you haven’t, and you do have an agenda and I am sorry you haven’t worked with us.”
At that point, Mayor Cole asked her not to make her comments personal. ”You would not want us to make those views personal,” he said.
The woman responded emphatically, “It is personal to me. It is very personal to us. It is very personal to each of us.”
Commented another massage therapist, “I have been told that this ordinance does not apply to me… it pertains to everyone… it does nothing to stop the illicit sex trafficking. We have a lot of ordinances already in force that are not being used.”
A general question was asked about what happens to the victims of human trafficking. “As far as I know we have no victim services. We have to do something.”
Kukulksi said, “I don’t have any involvement. I don’t know what our community offers for services.”
Some of the business owners expressed concern about HYPPA restrictions (privacy of personal information) in the ordinance requirement that they make all their records available to police upon demand.
City Attorney Gina Dahl said that the requirement would not be in violation of HYPPA, nor is it a violation of the Constitution, as some had proclaimed.