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A proposed ordinance seeking to heavily regulate the hundreds of Evanston massage therapists and bodyworkers returned to City Council on May 23. Once again, Council displayed no appetite for such “’overreaching” overregulation. This time, rather than send it back to staff for reworking, Council rejected the ordinance outright by 7-1 vote.

“I’m going to vote against this tonight. Not hold it over, not send it back, not anything. Just vote it down,” said Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, who repeated a sentiment already aired by three other aldermen.

Alderman Mark Tendam, 6th Ward, described the ordinance as “too complicated to ever untangle,” and having caused “anxiety” in the community while taking up inordinate staff and community time. He, too, said he would vote it down.

 “There are nine pages of things, and I think what we were trying to accomplish was a very specific, discrete thing, which was generally if someone is operating an improper, illegal business … the Police Department needs a way to shut down that business,” said Alderman Don Wilson, 4th Ward. “This is eight and a half pages of other stuff that really don’t have anything to do with that.”

 Ald. Wilson also noted the impact of even the proposed ordinance in the community. “We’ve put a lot of businesses through a lot of stress and anxiety, concern over their livelihood,” he said. “The impositions are too great to too many people. There is too much of a risk of adverse impact” of the regulations.

The proposed ordinance came about because of concerns about a business that was thought to have been used for prostitution. Originally presented April 20, it would have added an Evanston license to state requirements, mandated police inspections of establishments, restricted who could obtain licenses and who could obtain treatment, among other provisions.

 The ordinance was reworked for the May 23 meeting by adding “bodyworkers” to the regulatory scheme (defined in the proposed ordinance as “the practice of a person using primarily touch to manipulate tissue, which does not constitute massage or massage therapy” under Illinois law) and making several other additions and deletions suggested by public comment and the American Massage Therapists Association.

Some of the changes, however, made things worse, said Jane Newman, who spoke against the ordinance and said she helped write the state law regulating massage therapists. As an example, she said the revision deleted the definition of “genital and sexual area” from the law, and yet the term remains “used throughout the ordinance, including banning touching those areas – which is a major problem for massage therapists who work post-surgically on people who have hip replacements, breast surgery and the like,” she said. “It is perfectly legitimate for them to be touching buttocks and breast tissue, but without a definition in there they’re left to wonder, ‘Am I going to be in violation of the City’s ordinance?’”

Adding a provision banning pictures disclosing the age, gender or physical attributes of regulated practitioners could force everyone to remove their own picture from their website, Ms. Newman continued. 

Ald. Wilson pointed out that even a name can operate to disclose a person’s gender.

 Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, called the ordinance “just completely overreaching… [It] got way out of hand. I’m concerned about the negative impact it’s having on our wonderful massage therapists [and] the stress also brought to bear on their clientele.

“I’m sorry you all had to go through this,” said Ald. Fiske.

 “I want to suggest to our staff,” said Ald. Rainey, “when there’s something that even hints at this kind of controversy, bring it to us [City Council] for discussion first before” drafting an ordinance and putting it on the agenda. “Everybody could have saved so much time.”

“There are a number of these types of ordinances out there percolating,” said Alderman Brian Miller, 9th Ward, citing the landlord regulation ordinance, also mentioned by Ald. Rainey, and possible revisions to the taxicab ordinance. For such “larger policy issues … we need to have a better process for flushing out” concerns that will be raised in the community, concerns such as those presented in the massage ordinance “that were not addressed.”

Ald. Tendam agreed. “We need some formal way of gathering information before we put [a proposed ordinance] on the agenda,” he said.

The proposed changes to the massage establishment ordinance “jumped on our radar because of one business,” said Alderman Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward. “It would make me cringe to know that every time one business operates outside the law” the City would try to overhaul the regulatory scheme for the entire business community.

“We’ve got a police problem, not so much a massage therapist problem. … This is plain and simple a police problem,” said Ald. Rainey, describing an “indiscrete ad, to say the least” for a Howard Street business that led to a police sting operation and arrests.

Alderman Delores Holmes, 5th Ward, was the lone holdout, saying the problem was bigger than one single business. Hundreds of calls and emails from parents of Evanston Township High School students referencing a business on Church Street drove her decision to support increased regulations, she said.

 But Ald. Holmes stood alone. When the matter came to a vote, seven voted no and only she voted yes.