Westerville City Council is moving toward putting further restrictions in place for businesses offering "massage treatment" in the city.
In February, council asked city staff members to draft legislation that would provide options for council and police to intervene when a business is suspected of engaging in human trafficking under the pretext of offering massage and spa services.
Council asked that the options avoid "aggressive policing," "excessive" burden on city staff or officials and "unnecessary invasion" of "legitimate" businesses.
To meet those goals, the staff drafted language that would require businesses to register with the city's planning and zoning department and identify all who "offer a massage treatment," stipulating they must be licensed massage therapists through the state.
City Council was expected to approve the ordinance at a public hearing June 5 but didn't. Council members instead asked for more information from city staff and is expected to have a third reading June 19.
Council's request came after a Feb. 2 search of Crystal Asian Massage at 407 W. Main St. due to concerns over potential human trafficking that resulted in the business being shut down.
According to a city release at the time, the search was conducted in partnership with the Ohio Attorney General's Office Bureau of Criminal Investigation Crime Scene Unit, Franklin County Public Health, Westerville Code Enforcement, the Salvation Army and Asian American Services.
Lt. Charles Chandler of the Westerville Division of Police addressed the media after that investigation, saying Crystal Asian Massage had a shared business manager with a similar business, Orchid Asian Spa, which has not yet opened at 535 S. Otterbein Ave. But that entity prompted concerns around the same time by posting advertisements on such websites as BackPage and Craigslist, featuring risque photographs of women and suggestive phrases.
Council on Feb. 6 implemented a 90-day moratorium on any new massage businesses in the city, and extended that moratorium by another 150 days starting May 8. If the new law advances and is enacted 30 days after passage, the moratorium would end.
According to a memo from economic development coordinator Rob Rishel, city staff members gave "significant consideration" to allowing "degrees or credentials short of an Ohio issued license" as acceptable to provide massages but determined the full certification should be required.
"Those individuals are not beholden to those prescribed rules of practice and conduct that govern the licensed professionals," the memo reads. "Further, a license can be canceled; a degree cannot. Finally, the state license requirement offers a clear, enforceable requirement. If the city allows exceptions, it weakens the city's ability to enforce and allows for loopholes that could be exploited."
Rishel told council at the ordinance's introduction May 21 that city staff reached out to more than 20 business owners, whose input was "invaluable" to the ordinance.
He said the new rules should help to combat the types of businesses that Westerville is trying to keep out.
"The city administration believes that the proposed process will deter any business looking to establish a massage facility as simply a front for illegal activities ... and give the code-enforcement division an additional avenue for inspection and enforcement, should a facility fail to obtain or adequately display a registration certificate," he said.
The city will allow 18 months for existing businesses to gain licensure for employees. Originally, city staff suggested just a one-year period. And even at just a year, Rishel said that time limit came as a result of conversations with business owners.
"We are comfortable that, starting from literally from scratch, when no one has any training, that they could accomplish that training and take the required Ohio test within a one-year period," he said.
Council Chairman Mike Heyeck said although he would prefer not to add extra red tape for businesses, requiring licensing is far from unheard of in the state.
"We do license barbers in the state of Ohio, for example," he said. "We do license engineers; we do license surveyors. So this is another extension allowing that license to be accounted for the business."