COTATI - Saying Cotati has too many massage businesses that are actually fronts for the sex trade, city officials are pursuing an ordinance that would regulate the massage industry.
"Our city has illicit massage parlors that are actually houses of prostitution and may be engaged in human trafficking," Assistant Planner Misti Harris told the City Council on Wednesday.
Harris named no specific businesses. But in an earlier interview, acting Community Development Manager Marsha Sue Lustig said the evidence has been gathered through police investigations and citizen complaints.
The ordinance would require state certification for massage therapists providing massages in exchange for compensation in Cotati.
It also would make both the property owner and the owner of a business found to be operating as a brothel subject to criminal penalties.
There are currently four prostitution parlors operating in the city, Cotati Police Sgt. Dave Houts said.
All of them are staffed by Asian women who either immigrated illegally or were forced into the trade under duress.
Houts characterized the parlors as "really ugly stuff," describing scenes of filthy hot tubs, condom-filled trash containers and "scantily-clad" women.
He said the ordinance — which would be approved July 14 — "is going to give us some teeth to get this abated."
The owner of a downtown business said she moved her location after 20 years because of a parlor that opened next door.
"It was very uncomfortable and definitely led to my decision to leave the place," said The Hub Cyclery co-owner Claire Fetrow, who described men arriving at the neighboring parlor at all hours of the night, sometimes in limousines.
The city last considered a massage parlor ordinance in 1999, but it died for reasons related to the cost of certifying legal masseuses, as well opposition from the industry, Harris said.
The cost of becoming certified, then about $1,200, is now $240 for two years, Harris said. The process includes verification of a therapist's training and a federal background check.
"It's far from inconvenient or burdensome," said Bernadette Murray, of Woodland, a member of the American Massage Therapy Association and one of several massage therapists who spoke in favor of the ordinance Wednesday.
Telisa Chai, of Santa Rosa, said that because of her Asian name and appearance, it was difficult at times to differentiate herself from prostitutes posing as legitimate therapists.
The certification process is a key step to overcoming that problem, she said.
"I can't set myself apart from what people assume I am when I say I am a massage therapist, until now," she said.
Santa Rosa, Rohnert Park, Cloverdale, Healdsburg and Windsor each have some form of regulation governing massage businesses. That, Harris said, combined with a lack of regulation in Cotati, has made the city more attractive to those operating illicit parlors.
The ordinance would prohibit locking massage room doors unless no other staff are on hand to assure privacy. Also prohibited would be waterbeds, beds, or floor mattresses on a massage business's premises.
Among other requirements, massage therapists must wear fully opaque clothing that does not expose the midriff or undergarments.