Voting after midnight, the Billings City Council approved the first reading of an ordinance designed to curtail illicit massage parlors in Billings.
Council voted 8-3 in favor of the ordinance; members Danny Choriki, Frank Ewalt and Pam Purinton opposed. The ordinance will appear again before council for two more readings and if it continues to get approval, it will go into effect in June.
Monday's meeting was the second in-person gathering for the council, and members faced a full community room at the Billings Public Library and a lobby with another dozen people. All waited more than three hours to speak on the ordinance.
Council and city staff crafted the massage parlor ordinance as a way to penalize those businesses that operate in town without a state massage therapy license or use it as a front to offer illicit sex acts.
The primary goal of the new ordinance is to protect those legitimate, licensed massage businesses in Billings, said Chris Kukulski, Billings city administrator.
"They have hijacked legitimate massage businesses," he said.
The draft ordinance specifically prohibits nudity, sexually suggestive advertising, sexual contact, the presence of sex toys, lubricant and contraceptives, and concealing individuals from identification.
It requires licensed massage therapy businesses to operate with a city business license and a license from the state Board of Massage Therapy. To receive the city business license, therapists must show proof they own the business and that they control the premises. They're required to disclose previous convictions and previous license suspensions and revocations.
"The ordinance essentially codifies good business practices," said city attorney Gina Dahl.
Local licensed massage therapists worry that the ordinance will not only make the problem worse but also negatively impact the businesses of the legitimate and licensed therapists in Billings.
More than a dozen people spoke during public comment at Monday night's meeting, voicing their frustration and fears about the impact and unintended consequences of the ordinance.
Many worried that the new regulations would be too onerous and force many in their industry out of business. Others talked about the frustration and hurt they felt at having their industry tied to illicit massage parlors.
"It's called the massage ordinance," Susan Carlson, a licensed massage therapist, told council members. "(But) it's not a massage ordinance, it's a brothel ordinance ... and it's a disaster."
Highlighted at the meeting were a pair of national human trafficking experts who spoke to their experience in combating the issue. Both spoke in favor of the city's draft ordinance and called it an effective tool for combating the illicit businesses.
Also at the meeting was FBI Special Agent Brandon Walter, who is based in Billings and works specifically to investigate human trafficking of minors. He answered questions about the specific issues related to trafficking.
Rather than rely solely on law enforcement, the ordinance uses the city's code enforcement division to enforce the regulation part of that is a way for the city to manage the costs of enforcement and provide a way for the city to act more quickly when a complaint is made.