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L.A.'s massage parlor mess

Editorial

It's not enough to plead poverty, Los Angeles officials owe it to residents to enforce certification requirements to prevent the city becoming a haven for prostitution.

March 24, 2011

Can't Los Angeles do anything right? First it was billboards, legal and illegal, conventional and digital, that proliferated across the city as seemingly powerless officials fretted about what to do. For a while, every official action seemed to make matters worse. Then it was marijuana dispensaries that were suddenly everywhere, encouraged by inaction from City Hall. Belated attempts to regulate and police them were struck down in court. Dispensaries opened, closed and opened again.

Now it is, allegedly, prostitution, as self-described massage parlors have rapidly opened their doors within city limits, particularly in Eagle Rock and other northeastern neighborhoods of Los Angeles. The problem, as The Times' Kate Linthicum reported Wednesday, is that Los Angeles didn't keep up with a 2009 state law changing certification requirements for legitimate massage therapists. The law swept aside local regulation of therapists in favor of uniform state certification, but it allowed cities to demand that massage businesses show their state credentials. Other cities in the region required businesses to do just that, but in Los Angeles, officials merely asked the businesses if they were state certified. Presumably, many that had no state approval said "yes" because they didn't have to show any proof.

It's not enough to plead poverty. Yes, Los Angeles is under severe budget stress and has had to cut funding for the city attorney's office and other departments and agencies that otherwise might keep an eye on permitting. But the same is true of neighboring cities that still seem to muster enough attention to protect their neighborhoods.

Some may be tempted to dismiss the proliferation of massage parlors as not a big deal, on the grounds that they're merely places for consenting adults to engage in personal business, sexual or otherwise, behind closed doors. That's naive. Whether prostitution should be legal is not the issue. Currently, it's not, and Los Angeles' failure to pay attention has now made its streets the destination for massage customers from cities that no longer tolerate such establishments.

In other cities, officials are cracking down on the exploitation of women, many of them underage, whose illegal immigrant status makes them virtual slaves in the sex industry. But just as City Hall's regulatory and enforcement ineptitude drew "medical" marijuana dispensaries that brushed aside state law and engaged in straightforward sales to customers with or without medical need, massage parlors have arguably made northeast Los Angeles the region's prostitution capital. Angelenos certainly want their city leaders to bring in more jobs, but this is not what they had in mind.

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