By Shawn Raymundo
A new ordinance to strengthen the city’s regulations related to massage parlors and help bring down human trafficking in Orange County made it through the first reading of the city council on Tuesday, Aug. 18, propping up its eventual passage when councilors meet again next month.
In a unanimous vote, the council approved the first reading of the ordinance, which includes a bevy of amendments to the city’s laws on massage businesses. Those amendments are meant to aid in law enforcement’s efforts to end the network and organizations of human traffickers who force women into sex work at illicit massage parlors.
The ordinance, when officially passed, will give police services additional oversight of the business sector in San Clemente, hold landlords more accountable for tenants operating illicit establishments, and add certain restrictions to legitimate businesses.
The San Clemente-based nonprofit i-5 Freedom Network, which has worked to raise awareness to the issue of human trafficking while also supporting survivors, was instrumental in bringing about the ordinance.
The group, led by Brenda Wells, first implored the city to make the changes to the city’s municipal code back in 2017 after identifying gaps in the laws that allow for human trafficking to exist within illicit massage establishments locally.
Last month, the planning commission unanimously voted in favor of forwarding the ordinance to the city council for approval.
A key provision in the ordinance is the involvement of the owners of commercial properties who lease space to massage parlors, making them more responsible for their tenants.
According to the ordinance, if a massage parlor is found to be in violation of the city’s code, prompting a revocation of the business license, a landlord is responsible for fines and is also prohibited from renting the same space to another massage business for at least two years.
The ordinance will also mandate that operators of massage establishments shut off all illuminated signs at the close of business, keep well-lit entrances, ensure that entries and exits are kept in visible locations and remove locks from all rooms dedicated for massages. They would also be subject to unannounced inspections from city personnel.
Under the ordinance, San Clemente Police Services—through the Orange County Sheriff’s Department—would be tasked with reviewing a prospective massage operator’s application for permits and business licenses, as well as background information.
Currently, existing establishments are also required to renew their business license annually, which is reviewed by the city’s planning and business license staff. Once the ordinance passes, police services will also conduct reviews of the license renewals.
During last week’s council meeting, Councilmember Gene James proposed the addition of a few more amendments, including a local requirement that message businesses display the state-mandated Human Trafficking Hotline Poster in waiting areas and employee breakrooms, as well as in the message rooms.
The inclusion of the poster requirement in city code had been a recommendation of i-5 Freedom. Jennifer Savage, the city’s senior planner, explained that staff and the planning commission left it out of the ordinance because it’s already a requirement of the state.
“The intent was not to make a duplicative work of the state requirement law,” Savage said, while also agreeing to add the language in the ordinance for the second reading.
Another amendment James added to the ordinance is a requirement that a message operator make a copy of each customer’s photo identification for their records.
“You go the dentist’s office, they do that; the doctor’s office, they do that; and I think in the case of illicit operations, those customers will be very reluctant to do that,” James said. “If we can cut them off from their customer base we can start dealing with this blight.”
A recent San Clemente Times cover story on the issue of human trafficking and illicit massage parlors in San Clemente reported that at least two establishments locally appear to have been engaging in illicit activity within the past year.
Using the website Rub Maps, a Yelp-like review site to find places that offer erotic messages—a tool largely used by law enforcement to begin investigations—SC Times found a total of nine local establishments that had been reviewed, but seven of them were either listed as non-erotic or had been closed.
While only two locations appeared active, reviews for those seven other location locations indicated that there may have been some history of illicit activity. Many of the reviewers had expressed disappointment in the establishment for no longer offering such services.
The council will convene Sept. 8 at 6 p.m. for its public session. The meeting is expected to take place in-person—for the first time since March—at the local community center with social distancing requirements.
Shawn Raymundo is the city editor for the San Clemente Times. He graduated from Arizona State University with a bachelor’s degree in Global Studies. Before joining Picket Fence Media, he worked as the government accountability reporter for the Pacific Daily News in the U.S. territory of Guam. Follow him on Twitter @ShawnzyTsunami and follow San Clemente Times @SCTimesNews.