The city of Powell is preparing legislation aimed at giving the city more control over massage parlors within its boundaries.
According to city spokeswoman Megan Canavan, Powell's operations committee has directed city staff to draft legislation that would require additional licensing from massage businesses and give the city's zoning department more recourse for investigating those businesses.
The goal, she said, is to ensure that massage-oriented businesses in Powell are not fronts for illicit causes.
"Really, this is to help prevent businesses from using massage parlors as a front for prostitution and human trafficking," she said. "A couple other communities near us have implemented these new license regulations as well, and Powell is, at this stage, looking at what they've done, looking at their ordinances and seeing how that could fit in with the city of Powell."
Powell's last brush with human trafficking came in January 2015, when the Central Ohio Human Trafficking Task Force arrested two Columbus residents for suspected human trafficking and served search warrants at three central Ohio massage parlors, including Amsun Massage, 128 E. Olentangy St.
Two similar raids were conducted in Westerville and Worthington last year, and both of those cities responded by having their staff members craft legislation aimed at tightening restrictions on the types of businesses that can operate as massage parlors.
Canavan said Westerville's ordinance, in particular, would serve as a template for Powell's action.
In Westerville's case, the new law requires that businesses employ only massage therapists licensed by the state medical board and allows fines and jail time to be issued for those who break the law.
While Canavan said specifics of Powell's potential legislation are not yet available, she said it will likely be similar to Westerville's, and said city leaders see it as a necessary measure, especially after the 2015 raid.
"This is one way the city can really be proactive about preventing that in the future," she said.
Police Chief Gary Vest said he would welcome legislation that helps the city use methods other than policing to target businesses "tied to human trafficking."
"If the city has control through the zoning process, we can make sure a business is aligned with the legitimate needs of the community," he said. "Unfortunately, not all massage parlors are run that way. Some are good, reputable places like any other business. Others are not."
The goal, Vest said, would not be to hassle existing, legitimate massage businesses but to crack down on those who "advertise on Backpage or the dark net that they're offering services beyond traditional massage."
"We have legit massage parlors in town; it's not an activity we're saying shouldn't occur," he said. "But the nature of some of these are ones that require closer observation."
Canavan said a plan is not yet in place for outreach to existing massage parlors, but he said owners of those businesses likely would be invited to the Feb. 19 operations committee meeting, where the topic will be introduced, and they would be invited to speak before Powell City Council when the legislation reaches that stage.
"They could provide some feedback for staff or for City Council regarding this," she said.