On Thursday, the Fresno City Council voted to proceed with the "Ethic of Fresno Act," a proposal introduced by council member Clint Olivier that's designed to regulate the massage industry.
"Many massage parlors operate as a front for the sex trade and I know that we've all seen them pop up overnight," he said during a meeting at Fresno city council chambers.
Olivier said when his office began working on the ordinance three years ago, it discovered the number of massage parlors had exploded from just over 30 in 2008 to more than 200 today and the Fresno Police Department estimates nearly 10% of those are currently operating illegally.
"Of the 156 victims of human trafficking, we've been able to identify (since 2009), five of those came from massage parlors," said Ronna Bright of Central Valley Against Human Trafficking (CVAHT).
The group made up of local advocates, non-profits and members of the faith community, believe the Act, which stands for Ending the Traffic of Humans in the City, will give Fresno Police Investigators more time to hunt down the exploiters by changing the way massage practitioners and therapists are certified.
"I'm excited that we were creative and that we actually found a way to kick out the application process to the state of California and that's going to free up personnel here in the city of Fresno so they can actually go out and do their jobs and investigate and go after places that are operating illegally," said Olivier.
Right now, one police detective spends all of her time conducting background checks and certifying individual applicants. Under the new ordinance, a state agency called the California Massage Therapy Council would take over the task and establish a new set of criteria.
"The state law requires either 250 hours of training or 500 hours whether they want to be a certified massage practitioner or certified massage therapist," said CMATC CEO Ahmos Netanel.
Those new regulations rub some businesses, like Spectrum Salon, the wrong way.
"It would cost a lot more for our therapists to be certified. If someone were to have say 200 hours and the state requires 250 minimum, in order for them to get those hours they would have to take almost the entire course over again and the prices that we saw were anywhere from $6,000 to $13,000," said General Manager Robert Pasillas.
Pasillas said some of the practitioners he employs have been certified by the city for years and he's concerned shifting their certification to the state will force him to suspend their employment and his business to turn clients away in their absence.
But both Olivier and Fresno Police Sgt. Curt Chastain believe the ordinance will save money and save lives by freeing up detectives to bust businesses out of compliance of the state law.
"CMATC has been around for years and has proven itself as an agency. It can better vet those applicants and free officers to follow up on tips and leads that come into our office as well as conduct spontaneous inspections," said Chastain.
The ordinance would also require visibility from the street into massage parlors, prohibit doors from being locked during business hours and would outlaw advertisements that suggest commercial sex.
One piece of the ordinance, removed from the proposal, would have limited the hours massage parlors could operate from 7am to 9pm. The city took that section out because of legal issues, but said it would revisit the regulation after further review.
The ordinance will come back to the city council in two weeks for a final vote.