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Council votes tonight on massage parlor bill


The County Council is expected to pass a massage parlor licensing bill tonight, after a few changes to County Executive Charles I. Ecker's proposal.

The bill, which would require massage parlor owners and their employees to be licensed, is needed, Mr. Ecker says, to eliminate the prostitution, lewd displays and indecent behavior alleged to have taken place at some of the county's nine massage parlors.

"We don't want to make it difficult for masseuses and masseurs that provide legitimate massage therapy," Mr. Ecker said when he sent the bill to the council last month. "There are a lot of legitimate massage parlors [in the county], and we want the public to know that. But we want to thwart those that are a front for prostitution. That's what we're trying to control. We closed up one [recently], and I don't know how many more are out there."

Vice and narcotics detectives raided three of the county's nine massage parlors Jan. 20 as part of an eight-month investigation and arrested five women, charging two with prostitution.

Police also raided an Ellicott City tanning spa last May after an informant told them that female employees at the spa were charging customers between $100 and $140 for sex.

After the May 13 raid, police charged two female employees with prostitution. A third woman at the spa was charged in an April arrest warrant with twice having sex with a police informant. In January 1992, two women were charged with prostitution at a Columbia spa. "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 at a Jan. 25 work session on the bill.

The chief asked for two changes that he said would help police shut down illegitimate operations. He wanted the council to ban cross-sex massages and he wanted police to be able to forcibly enter a locked room or cubicle without a search warrant after knocking and announcing that they were planning to enter.

The knock-and-enter clause is necessary, Chief Robey said, to prevent suspects from destroying evidence before opening the door to police, he said.

The chief is likely to get half of what he wants. Councilman Charles C. Feaga, a 5th District Republican, has sponsored an amendment that would give police the knock-and-enter power that Chief Robey wants, but he has backed away from an amendment outlawing cross-gender massage.

Cross-gender massage is outlawed in two neighboring jurisdictions, and Councilman Paul R. Farragut, a 4th District Democrat, wants it outlawed in Howard County as well.

Mr. Feaga's vote was crucial to the passage of the cross-gender ban because Mr. Farragut's two Democratic colleagues on the council had indicated they would not support the cross-gender amendment. Until Friday, Mr. Farragut had the support of Mr. Feaga and Councilman Darrel Drown, a 2nd District Republican.

"I decided at 11 a.m. [Friday] to withdraw my name from the cross-gender amendment," Mr. Feaga said. "I'm not so sure its legal. If it turns out that Howard County becomes a home for [prostitution], we can take further action" later.

Mr. Farragut and Mr. Drown are supporting the amendment.

The bill applies only to massage parlors and their employees. It 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.

The massage bill is one of 28 bills scheduled for a council vote in a legislative session at 8 p.m. tonight in the county office building.

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