All Politics is Local

Massage businesses receive county perks

For more than a year, Clark County has waived the fees that business owners or developers have traditionally paid the county for new construction. The fee waivers, as they’re known, were part of Commissioner David Madore’s plan to open the floodgates to jobs. So far, more than 100 businesses have received waivers – including a car wash!

Madore rarely misses an opportunity to point out his political victories, real or perceived, so he took to Facebook over the weekend to tout an online map that shows all businesses that have benefited from the waivers. The map shows “Clark County (is) in high gear as new and expanding employers are creating new and local jobs … and making Clark County the most business friendly community on the west coast,” Madore wrote in his characteristically understated way. But look closely at the list and you’ll see two massage businesses – the type that received a fair amount of media exposure recently – have had their fees waived.

And that’s rubbing some people the wrong way. *rimshot*

Illicit massage parlors have been the focus of police crackdowns since the beginning of the year. Now, that’s not to say there’s anything shady or illegal about these businesses that have received waivers. And the county is quick to point out that it’s not responsible for vetting businesses before issuing building permits or fee waivers.

That could change.

In May, the county said it had made headway in drafting an ordinance that would clamp down on illicit massage businesses by issuing certificates of occupancy only to businesses employing state-licensed massage practitioners and reflexologists. It’s the only viable way the county can regulate the industry, officials say. “We can’t require a business license,” said Marty Snell, the county’s community development director. “We’re not authorized to do so.”

The planning commission will address the ordinance this week. It will likely take weeks for the commissioners to tackle it. In the meantime, Madore is telling people to chill out or, better yet, conduct their own investigations if they’re concerned.

Madore

Of course, this begs the question: Does Madore know whether these businesses are on the up and up? (He was quick to come to their defense, after all.) Does he know whether they’re licensed? He seems confident they are, but how would he know? And are they even required to post their licenses right now? The commissioners haven’t yet approved the ordinance, one of the requirements of which is that a massage business must prominently post its state license. There are so many questions. And, to use one of Madore’s favorite three-word phrases, I would think the county would be responsive to citizen concerns.

It looks like the county might look into the matter. Michele Wollert, a Shumway resident who voiced concerns to the Vancouver city council and county commissioners earlier this year about illegal massage businesses, exchanged emails with Madore over the weekend and brought to light new information. She copied County Administrator Mark McCauley and Chief Civil Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Chris Horne to the email.

I redacted the name of the business in question because there’s no solid evidence they’ve done anything wrong and they’re not part of an investigation. I will update this blog post if I receive more information, however.

Sent: Sunday, June 15, 2014 10:56 AM

To: Mielke, Tom; Madore, David; Barnes, Ed

Cc: McCauley, Mark; Horne, Chris

Subject: Fee waiver award questioned

Commissioners Mielke, Madore and Barnes:

As you may remember, I and another neighborhood leader testified in front of you in January about the proliferation of unlicensed massage businesses in Vancouver and Clark County.  Axel Swanson responded that night and has been working with other Clark County staff members to write an ordinance to better regulate such businesses.  I thanked them in subsequent emails and look forward to the public hearing that will be held in the future on this important public health and safety issue.

I follow Commissioner Madore’s personal Facebook page because he uses that social media source as a favored way to correspond with and inform constituents of Clark County.  On Saturday, I reviewed the fee waiver data he posted there, paying particular attention to any businesses that provide massage services.

Another constituent had complained to Commissioner Madore on Facebook that day about his concerns that some of these massage businesses may be operating illegally.

Because of our neighborhood leaders’ ongoing partnership with the Vancouver Police Department in their investigations of suspected illegal massage businesses within city limits, I knew to refer to Backpage dot com Portland for ads under Services, Massage.

I found ads for Friday, June 13, Saturday, June 14, and Sunday, June 15 for a business located at [redacted] which received a Clark County fee waiver of $3,641 on 1/22/2014 under the name [redacted]. I scanned and attached these ads to my email so that you can be cautious about opening them on your county computers.  NB: The photos in the ads show scantily clad young Asian women and include these descriptions: “Amazing*Cute*Gorgeous*Sweet*ASIAN Girls” and “Beautiful and hot young girls” and “NEW Sweet Asian Massage.”

While there is no reference to [redacted] in the recent ones, but another ad on June 1 for this business name lists the address as [redacted], as well. These businesses apparently change names and owners very frequently as one way to fly under the law enforcement radar. Perhaps [redacted] has sold its business and the new owner is placing the most recent ads.

The website associated with [redacted] appears to be inactive, but the phone numbers for [redacted] and on these newer ads are the same.

While we cannot know for certain without law enforcement and code investigations whether illegal activity is occurring at this address, we do know that these salacious ads are consistent with similar ads posted for businesses that have been closed through police action in Vancouver. Furthermore, legitimate, licensed massage therapists usually would not advertise their services using photos of scantily-clad young Asian women in provocative poses.

I urge you to investigate the massage and business licenses at this address. I remind you that Clark County awarded it a fee waiver.  I also urge you to consider adding specific requirements of businesses before you hand out tax payer gifts in the form of indiscriminate fee waivers.  I don’t think many Clark County residents will be happy to know that their tax dollars may be supporting businesses that, at the very least, uses such advertising to attract customers and, at the worse, may be a front for illegal activity.

Thank you for your serious consideration of my concerns. Rather than presenting this to you during a public comment session, I am starting with this email to give you time to discuss this and consult with your legal and law enforcement advisers. I look forward to your response.

Sincerely,

Michele Wollert

Madore, an apparent night owl, responded to Wollert’s concerns early this morning.

From: Madore, David <David.Madore@clark.wa.gov>
To: Michele Wollert; McCauley, Mark <Mark.McCauley@clark.wa.gov>; Madore, David <David.Madore@clark.wa.gov>
Sent: Mon, Jun 16, 2014 12:10 am
Subject: Questionable Message Business

Michele Wollert,

Thank you for reporting this.  Every business in our jurisdiction needs to be legitimate, regardless of any fee waiver program.

We will look into this and get back with you with our findings and any corrective actions.  Again, thank you for the time to search this out and bringing this to our attention.

David Madore

So far, massage parlors received $6,732 in waived fees.

Tyler Graf

I started working for The Columbian in 2012 and currently cover Clark County. I'm a 2007 graduate of The University of Oregon. Contact me at tyler.graf@columbian.com

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