The Prince George's County Chamber of Commerce has added a unique chapter to the continuing story of business' struggle with government over what it considers excessive regulation.
In this case, the chamber hasn't taken up the fight for one of the 800 county businesses it represents. Rather, it has placed itself squarely in the middle of a dispute over a proposed ban on massage parlors--a minor but controversial business segment.
Prince George's County officials have concluded on the basis of an extensive investigation by police that most of the jurisdiction's massage parlors are really houses of prostitution.
As a result, some county officials have sought to put more teeth in existing regulations covering massage-parlor operations.
County Council member Frank P. Casula of Laurel, a leading proponent of a crackdown on massage parlors, has proposed a bill that would all but ban the 17 establishments now operating in the county.
An aide to Casula says the intent is "to rid the county of houses of prostitution." A key provision in the bill would ban all massages by members of the opposite sex.
But the chamber, traditionally a conservative voice of the business community, opposes Casula's bill, contending that it's too broad.
"It's our opinion that by having that provision in the bill, it will put all massage parlors out of business whether they are breaking the law or not," said Bob Zinsmeister, director of governmental affairs for the chamber.
Casula and his supporters, as well as the chamber, cite a lengthy police investigation that turned up violations at all but one of the county's massage parlors. The one apparent "legitimate" establishment employs female masseuses and could be hurt by the proposed ban on cross-sexual massages, the chamber maintains.
Chamber officials agree that it's unusual for the organization to take the position that it has taken in this matter. However, there is more at stake than the possible loss of a small business, they insist. It comes down to a matter of principle.
"I think there is a philosophical question of government establishing strict laws that will more or less legislate people out of business and prevent people from coming into the county for legitimate purposes," said Zinsmeister.
But supporters of the Casula bill contend that operators of legitimate massage parlors won't be hurt, even though the proposal contains provisions calling for tougher disclosure requirements and higher license fees.
Chamber officials say they support all of the bill's provisions except the one that would ban massages by members of the opposite sex. But directors of the business organization believe that proper enforcement of existing laws will rid the county of illegitimate operations.
Casula's bill represents "an expedient position" for the county, Zinsmeister says.
"Basically, the problem is a lot of massage parlors are getting around the law by calling themselves health clubs," said an aide to Casula. "If you go in those establishments, you'll find maybe one barbell and 15 to 20 beds."
Another opponent of the bill, Councilwoman Ann Landry Lombardi of Upper Marlboro, says she is "dumbfounded" that the chamber would "hang it's opposition" to the cross-sexual masssage provision. With a "national momentum to get government off our backs," Lombardi said she had expected the chamber to oppose the bill for being too restrictive.
"This bill requires an enormous amount of reporting. These massage parlors will have to disclose who the principals are on a regular basis," she said.
Lombardi considers the activities in question "victimless crimes." What's more, she said, the bill attempts to legislate a moral issue, and "we're getting our priorities mixed up."
The proliferation of massage parlors in Prince George's County is a recent development. In the late '70s, fewer than 10 establishments were licensed by the county. In recent years, however, interest in the massage-parlor business has grown considerably.
Prince George's officials, already sensitive about the county's image in the past as a less-than-attractive location for business and residential development, say crackdowns on massage-parlor operations in other jurisdictions have spurred an exodus to the county.
License fees barely cover administrative costs, contends an aide to Casula; therefore, net revenues to the county are negligible.
Tougher provisions in the proposed legislation to regulate the massage-parlor business in the county would require doubling the existing license fee in some instances. The fee would be based on the number of employes in an establishment.
The proposed legislation also calls for stricter disclosure requirements, licensing of technicians, a prohibition against out-call massage service and more rigid zoning laws.
Supporters of the legislation believe that with five of the council's 11 members backing it, passage is all but assured. Meanwhile, "We've been trying to figure where the chamber is coming from," said one proponent.