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The Huntington Beach City Council has postponed a decision on whether to limit the number of massage parlors in the city after massage certification officials asserted that such a measure would be illegal.

The City Council was set to vote Monday on establishing a citywide cap of 30 massage establishments. More than 60 now operate in the city, and many are fronts for prostitution, according to police officials.

But after speaking with a top official at the California Massage Therapy Council, the city held off on its plans for now.

“Recent changes in state law indicate that the proposed regulation would not survive a legal challenge,” City Attorney Jennifer McGrath wrote in an email to city leaders Monday morning.

State law now requires that city regulations on massage businesses must apply to all professions, explains Beverly May, director of governmental affairs at the massage therapy council, a nonprofit set up by the state to issue certificates for massage therapists. In other words, cities can’t single out massage businesses for restrictions.

McGrath and Police Chief Ken Small plan to meet with May next Monday. Police officials say an explosion of new massage businesses since 2009 has largely brought prostitution along with it.

“The overwhelming majority of the new businesses are not the legitimate type of massage business. Many advertise in erotic sections of websites,” the police department recently wrote on its Facebook page.

The proposed ordinance stated that “in the interest of public safety, health, and welfare, the city wishes to curb the practice of sex oriented businesses disguised as massage establishments from doing business in the city of Huntington Beach.”

Recent undercover investigations led to the arrest of five employees at three massage parlors for prostitution and sex-related crimes, police say.

And during inspections of Huntington Beach massage parlors in early May, police say, some female employees “admitted to performing acts of prostitution at the massage businesses where they were working.”

May of the state massage council says an increase in elicit massage businesses has been noted nationwide, with California having an even bigger problem.

Ultimately, she added, the city and massage council’s goals are the same.

“We’re on the same side as the city,” said May. “We were created to protect the public.”

— NICK GERDA

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