Rock Springs massage therapists question new ordinances | Wyoming
ROCK SPRINGS — Local massage therapists voiced their concerns over the verbiage of two ordinances outlined to help Sweetwater County law enforcement to combat sex trafficking and prevent illicit massage parlors from setting up shop in Rock Springs.
During the council’s public hearing on Tuesday, Oct. 18, residents were invited to share their opinions over Ordinance 2022-13, Article 3-2, titled “Offenses Concerning Public Morals and Decencies,” and Ordinance 2022-14, Article 10-12, titled “Licensing and Regulation of Massage Therapists and Massage Establishments.” Both were designed to address sex trafficking concerns.
Rock Springs resident Joy Turner, a supporter for local massage therapists, told the council that she didn’t believe the new ordinances will prevent sex trafficking.
She also said that putting restrictions on the massage professionals who have been in business in Rock Springs will “push them into a corner and eventually put them out of business.”
“I’m very passionate about healing therapy,” said Turner. “In my opinion, we’re just trying to push down something that we don’t understand.”
She added, “I think it needs to go a different route. You’re taking a box of apples and penalizing all the apples instead of one or two of those apples. I think we need to cut it off by the head before it gets out of control.”
Councilman Rob Zotti explained that the council is adding the definition to sexual contact in ordinance 13.
Ordinance 14 explains the licensing of massage therapists.
Mayor Tim Kaumo and the council agreed that public input is important in assisting them in writing the ordinance properly. Richard Beckwith, city attorney, pointed out that the intention of ordinance 14 is not to throw all massage therapists out.
“All the city is asking is for the massage therapist to obtain a license and show they’re qualified to be a massage therapist,” said Beckwith. “You must have formal training from somewhere. No one wants to over-regulate, but at some point, regulation is important.”
Zotti asked how the ordinances will be enforced.
“If people are going to do bad things, they’re going to do bad things,” said Zotti.
Kaumo said he disagrees.
Kaumo said, “One of the requirements in this ordinance is a background check. I think any reputable massage therapist who takes their training seriously won’t have a problem getting a license.”
He added, “There are pros and cons. We have to look at the people coming from other states. This discussion is to find out what makes sense, what doesn’t make sense and what will be beneficial to law enforcement while protecting reputable massage parlors.”
Rock Springs massage therapist Tammy Morlock expressed her gratitude in the council’s efforts in “going after sex traffickers.”
“I have to commend you for going after them,” said Morlock. “It sickens me and I’m really grateful you’re doing something about it.”
She expressed concerns over the language in ordinance 14, as well. She pointed out that her license is in plain sight.
“I need to be fingerprinted?” she asked, regarding the background check. “That makes me feel like a criminal. We’re all from Rock Springs.
“It’s insulting, but I have a lot of respect where you guys are going with this, but we need to look at the verbiage as a team and as a city. I believe if we don’t, we’re going deeper underground.”
She suggested that a “grandfathering clause” should be included in the ordinance for local, well-known therapists.
Kaumo agreed with Morlock, saying, “I think the new ones should go through a background check, including fingerprinting. We’re always looking for 100% of the solution, but if we can help 10% of the human trafficking problem, that would be great.”
Morlock asked if restrictions would still be placed on therapists who are referred to patients by physicians. Kaumo said that since physicians have licenses to practice, therapists should be exempt from those restrictions.
Beckwith explained that they will include language that therapists need to be directed by a physician.
“What this ordinance will do is to prevent people who are not qualified to do massage therapy from obtaining a license to do so in the city of Rock Springs and that will directly lead to the closing down of those massage therapy establishments that presently practice human trafficking,” he said.
Zotti still insisted that it will cause confusion for law enforcement.
“Ordinance 13 addresses the issue, but not 14,” Zotti said. “From a law enforcement stand-point, how will this work?”
Sgt. Michelle Hall from the Sweetwater County Sheriff’s Office told the council that the agency knows which massage parlors are using women to engage in illicit activities.
“I want to clarify that these women are not prostitutes,” said Hall. “Prostitutes want to do that. These women are human trafficking victims. There is a difference.”
She added, “We know we can shut them down the way they did in Billings. Some regulations would be best. I have to have a reason to investigate, though. Without regulations, I wouldn’t have probable cause. Regulations would help us.”
Zotti told Hall that they will change the definition and discuss what they can do to help them, but “right now we’re just regulating to regulate.”
Beckwith told the council that he and the staff looked at the way other communities wrote their regulations on this issue, not just Billings.
“That type of human trafficking will go somewhere else and not in our community,” said Beckwith.
Zotti said that he believes that prosecuting those with no licenses is “just a slap on the wrist.”
“They’ll be serving jail time by the second and third offense,” Beckwith pointed out. “We’re hoping they’d leave because of this ordinance.”
Misty Hay, owner of Escape Day Spa and Boutique in downtown Rock Springs, shared her concerns for the two ordinances.
“The massage industry has been outstanding and accommodates the community,” she said.
According to Beckwith, ordinance 13 will help prosecute prostitution cases in massage parlors and punish those who are currently practicing sex trafficking.
“It will give us the opportunity to take away their license,” he said. “It makes it more difficult for the illicit ones to operate, if we remove the license and start making arrests.”
Zotti said the ordinances won’t stop them.
He pointed out that the ordinance states that each day the violation takes place, such as required training not being met by the therapist, it will disqualify them from obtaining a license.
“I agree with you that this will be pushed underground, but this will help us to stop this ongoing problem the state has had for a very long time because we have been unable to stop it, not just by definition of sexual contact, but by the manner of which these businesses operate,” he said.
Beckwith also noted that the state does not regulate this particular industry.
“It should be done by the state, but as a city, we can fill the gap,” he said.
Ordinance 13 and 14 have been tabled by the council. It will discuss the amendments to these ordinances during a scheduled workshop.
This story was published on Oct. 22, 2022.