Business license bylaw sent back for more information; inclusion of escorts, escort agencies questioned

Plans to get an updated business licensing bylaw on the table for public input were stalled Monday night

Plans to get an updated business licensing bylaw on the table for public input were stalled Monday night when councillors voted to send the proposed draft back to staff for more information.

One particular concern, both to councillors, and about 35 people who packed the council chamber, was the inclusion of specific regulations for escorts and escort agencies.

Staff proposed council give first reading to the bylaw which has been a year in drafting, and then advertise it and collect feedback over a four week period before bringing it back to the Mar. 25 council meeting for consideration of second reading with or without amendments.

However Councillors Sean McIntyre and Dale Plante preferred the second option presented to them — that council request further information. Councillors voted unanimously to approve that direction following sometimes heated debate. Councillor Ken MacVicar was absent from the meeting.

The evening began with several speakers at the open microphone session imploring town councillors not to allow escorts and escort agencies to operate in town.

Once the item came before council, Tim Schmidt, the town’s director of planning and development, stated that today escorts agencies could operate in town without municipal restrictions.

“They are legal businesses and are allowed to operate, subject to regulation within the powers and limitations of municipalities,” he said.

Changes to the bylaw are to add restrictions and impose fees higher than those for other businesses. “It’s appropriate to have regulations within the bylaw,” Schmidt said, but he also noted, “a municipal bylaw must not be for morality”.

Regulations in the bylaw would require escorts and escort agencies to provide a variety of information and meet certain conditions.

Among those conditions is the requirement of the licensing inspector to refer any application to the RCMP for comments, indicated Schmidt.

Annual fees for escorts would be $300 a year and for escort agencies $5,000 per year.

The bylaw also provides penalties for operating without licences ($2,500 for escorts and $7,500 for escort agencies) and breaches of conditions of the licences.

Councillors, at their Nov. 26 meeting, reviewed a discussion paper which identified the need for ‘proactive regulations’ for certain ‘unique’ businesses based on information received from other municipalities and agencies.

(See story in Sylvan Lake News, Nov. 29, 2012 – front page, which is available under e-editions on our website.)

At that time councillors passed a motion asking staff to proceed with drafting the bylaw. McIntyre and councillor Rick Grimson voted against the motion. Plante was absent from that meeting.

McIntyre had argued prohibiting escorts and escort agencies was not a moral issue but one of health and safety. He pointed to another part of the staff recommendation which stated rickshaws and pedicabs should be prohibited from operating in the town’s downtown core because they’d become a public safety issue, delaying traffic in the busy narrow corridor during the heat of the summer season.

He made similar comments Monday night.

The discussion paper, he asserted, contained some general detail about why rickshaws should be banned because they were a safety issue but “I did not see the same level of information on escorts and escort agencies, or any information.”

McIntyre was challenged by Samson that he was getting into discussion of the bylaw which was not the purpose of first reading. She suggested he take the same position as Plante did earlier that councillors request further information rather than pass first reading.

At that, McIntyre provided a lengthy list of questions pertaining to the escort issue.

Among them was whether the RCMP staff sergeant felt he currently has the resources to keep escorts safe, how many additional members and the cost that might be required for doing so, when new members would be available, what taxation would be required to pay for their services, and whether the potential increased cost is reflected in the business license fee for these businesses.

To the Community Services department, he asked if they have adequate programs to help escorts wanting to exit the business, what resources would be needed and the taxation required to pay for the programs.

McIntyre also noted the bylaw “doesn’t make mention to areas of operation. Can they set up in residential neighbourhoods as home occupations? Will neighbours be informed?”

“We need more information,” he concluded.

Plante had earlier criticized the process indicating the proposal was for four weeks of seeking public input without the opportunity for debate. “Council is going to see the exact same bylaw in four weeks,” he suggested.

Schmidt indicated that four weeks would allow time to advertise, compile input and for administration to review comments and bring forward changes that council might want to consider.

Samson added that the Mar. 25 meeting would be the time for debate of input from the public and to propose changes. “It’s the typical way we do bylaws.”

However Plante said, “We seem to have identified contentious issues that have not been addressed anywhere.” He noted the issues of gambling, casinos and strip bars. “Why do we have escort agencies, why not some of the other, what we would consider, detrimental businesses?”

Other ‘unique’ businesses which were included in the draft with additional regulations were tourist homes, farmers’ market, mobile vending, pawn shops, secondhand stores, special events and buskers. The draft bylaw also prohibits rickshaws and pedicabs.

No specific date was set for the requested information to be presented or the bylaw to be back before council.