James Rockafellow's simmering suspicions about prostitution at massage parlors near his Lafayette home exploded into action when a massage worker "propositioned" a teen neighbor as he walked home from high school.
"We knew something illicit was going on," said Rockafellow, 63. "It was obviously inappropriate."
So Rockafellow and his neighbors screamed for action and the city in May passed an ordinance requiring all massage therapists and practitioners be certified through California's first statewide effort at regulating the industry: the Massage Therapy Council.
Lafayette is one of a growing number of Bay Area cities that requires certification from the council, which sets tough standards for therapists and this year beefed up those rules by targeting advertising by illicit operators.
But other Bay Area cities, including Oakland, San Jose and many on the Peninsula, aren't using it, leaving them without the powerful, no-cost tool against the prostitution and organized crime officials attribute to illicit parlors. Officials in those cities cited budget cuts and other priorities when explaining their response.
Police in Oakland and San Jose, for example, admit there is illicit activity, but Oakland focuses on fighting child prostitution, investigating parlors primarily when residents complain. Budget cuts forced San Jose to ax its vice unit that focused on fighting prostitution and gambling.
Fremont police Chief Craig Steckler
Police agencies don't keep statistics on how many suspected illicit parlors operate in the Bay Area, but patron reviews online offer a glimpse into the numbers. Patrons openly critique price, workers and services -- sometimes in graphic detail -- on public websites.
According to reviews on one site since the start of 2012, there were at least 50 parlors offering sexual services in San Jose. Reviewers of Oakland locations cited a dozen in the same period and another 15 last year. There were at least 12 on the Peninsula.
California lawmakers took the first steps toward creating comprehensive, statewide massage industry regulation when Senate Bill 731 became law in 2009, closing the gaps in city and county regulations that shady operators exploited.
"We had a patchwork of 540 jurisdictions -- each one was completely different," said Ahmos Netanel, CEO of the Massage Therapy Council. "It becomes really not practical to require someone to have permits for every city."
Legitimate body workers welcomed the legislation.
"We are trying to bring a professional respect to massage, to educate everyone on what we really do," said Joe Bob Smith, a council board member and Santa Ana campus manager at massage school National Holistic Institute. "The whole prostitution thing, they have hijacked the term 'massage.'"
Under new standards enacted this year, therapists can lose their certification if they or their business advertises in "adult" sections of big-city weekly newspapers or websites. Applicants who want to become massage therapists, with few exceptions, must complete 500 hours of education and training at a council-approved establishment, and the council weeds out training schools that don't meet its standards.
Certified therapists -- which the council reports numbered some 31,500 in mid-June -- are authorized to work anywhere in the state.
But there is a major soft spot in the legislation: Therapists aren't required to have state certification to operate, allowing illicit parlors to skirt state regulation and set up shop in places with weak or no regulations.
Explanations vary for why the bill didn't require council certification in all jurisdictions, but generally it's about money and political wrangling. If California enacted mandatory licensing, taxpayer money would have to be used to fund it. The council draws all of its funding from applicant fees.
Still, dozens of cities in Southern California have made certification mandatory, and others are following suit in the Bay Area. Certification is required in Pleasant Hill, Lafayette, San Carlos, Redwood City, San Mateo County, San Rafael, Morgan Hill, Campbell, Cotati and Antioch.
But some of the most populous cities, including San Jose, don't plan to adopt the requirement. San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed wasn't available to talk about this issue, but his spokeswoman, Michelle McGurk, said his focus is the city's finances. The city, she said, has had a decade of budget shortfalls that also affected its ability to develop new ordinances. Vice Mayor Madison Nguyen declined to comment.
Oakland City Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan said she hasn't heard any complaints from constituents on the issue.
"I am not ... convinced that it is necessary to make every massage therapist -- including those who have never done anything wrong -- undergo a difficult and expensive process which could undermine their ability to make a living," she wrote in an email.
In some cities, though, the rules are quietly being used to shutter questionable operations.
San Carlos targeted a parlor at 336 El Camino Real following complaints, with officers collecting enough evidence through undercover visits to go after the operator's council certification. Months later the owner's certification remains suspended.
Normally the criminal investigation would have been just the start, said San Mateo County sheriff's Capt. Greg Rothaus.
"I think we are getting some new tools," Rothaus said. "We're dealing with an enterprise where it's a lot of money, cash money. People are not going to stop until we find a way to root it out."
Bay Area News Group staff writer Matthew Artz contributed to this report. Contact Joshua Melvin at 650-348-4335. Follow him at Twittter.com/melvinreport.