The Howard County Council agreed last night that a massage parlor licensing bill aimed at eliminating prostitution, lewd displays and indecent behavior needs to be amended, but disagreed about how to amend it.
Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray, D-3rd, and Councilwoman Shane Pendergrass, D-1st, said during a 90-minute work session that they want to make the bill less onerous. Councilmen Paul R. Farragut, D-4th, and Charles C. Feaga, R-5th, want to make it more stringent. Councilman Darrel Drown, R-2nd, wants a tough licensing bill but is not sure it should contain the changes Mr. Farragut and Mr. Feaga want.
The bill as drafted by the county administration would prohibit massage parlor employees from giving massages to people of the opposite sex -- a prohibition the Police Department says is essential.
"This is an anti-prostitution bill, plain and simple," and is designed to put some of the county's nine massage parlors out of business, Police Chief James N. Robey told the council. "It is a public health issue and a public safety issue."
Chief Robey said the parlors that permit prostitution have ties to organized crime and earn $4,000 to $6,000 a day in illegal income.
Thursday, police raided three massage parlors and arrested five women after an eight-month investigation. Two of the women were charged with prostitution.
County Executive Charles I. Ecker says the bill is needed to rid the county of massage parlors that cater to clients seeking sex.
Among the issues still to be decided are what kind of training parlor employees would be required to have.
The bill does not apply to health professionals, athletic trainers, therapists certified by the National Certification Board for Bodywork and Massage Therapies, therapists who have completed advanced training in approved schools, and cosmetologists and barbers licensed to massage hands, feet, faces, scalps, necks and shoulders.
Council members debated what other kinds of massage training should count toward granting practitioners an exemption from the bill. Employees at the nine massage parlors are mostly Korean women who received training in Korea, their attorneys say.
"Who is God to say which massage system is the best one?" Ms. Pendergrass asked rhetorically. "Are we going to test this group of people and not others?"
Throughout the discussion, Ms. Pendergrass had problems with the fact that certain provisions of the bill -- such as requiring employees to receive medical checkups within 30 days of applying for a license, have background checks and be fingerprinted -- seem more stringent than the county is asking of other businesses.
Mr. Gray was concerned that Mr. Farragut and Mr. Feaga might '' pass, with Mr. Drown's help, an amendment outlawing cross-gender massage, saying it might be discriminatory.
County Solicitor Barbara Cook said it may not be discriminatory, but it may raise constitutional issues -- such as the inability of the women to find employment since they only massage men, and the inability of men to get a massage, since no there are no males who give massages at the nine parlors. Mr. Gray asked her to look into the matter further.
Mr. Farragut said other counties have passed prohibitions of crossgender massage without a court challenge, and he believes Howard County can do the same.
Mr. Gray also wanted to give existing businesses more time to respond to the bill, which is scheduled to take effect 60 days after passage. Chief Robey flinched when Mr. Gray suggested existing massage parlors be given six months to comply. Ms. Pendergrass suggested the council might compromise on 90 days.
"I don't know why you would want to give more time to people to operate illegally," Chief Robey said.
The council is scheduled to vote on the bill Feb. 7. In the meantime, members will likely be lobbying each other to win votes for their points of view.