City may crack down on local businesses to ward off fakers
Palm readers, fortune tellers and psychic consultants may soon face heightened scrutiny before opening businesses in Berkeley that trade on claims of extrasensory abilities.
At its meeting Tuesday, the City Council asked staff to examine creating tighter regulations on psychic businesses to ensure that “unscrupulous persons” don’t swindle trusting customers, especially the elderly, frail and lonely.
“We should at least be doing a background check to make sure that the people opening up these businesses don’t have criminal records,” said Mayor Shirley Dean, who sponsored the recommendation, “My understanding is that now all they have to do is simply open their doors.”
Dean said she authored the recommendation because of concerns of a long-time psychic business owner who is worried that new psychics in Berkeley are giving the trade a bad name.
“She would like to see the city regulate this type of business to protect innocent victims and maintain the integrity of her profession,” Dean’s recommendation read.
Both police officials and Dean said they have not recently heard of complaints of illegal activity at local psychic businesses.
Currently psychics, like other for-profit businesses, must apply for a business license. According to Planning and Development Principal Planner Matt LeGrant, there are no specific requirements that psychic businesses have to comply with.
LeGrant said psychic businesses fall into a catch-all category, which requires them to be approved by the Zoning Adjustments Board if they apply for a location in a small commercial district.
If the application is in a primarily commercial district, such as downtown or along University Avenue, the application can be approved by planning staff without going before ZAB.
Neither LeGrant nor Economic Development Director Bill Lambert could say how many such businesses currently exist in Berkeley.
Daniel Sabsay, president of the East Bay Skeptics Society, an organization dedicated to a comprehensive and responsible examination of contemporary claims of fringe science and “paranormal” phenomena, said that creating stiffer regulations for psychic businesses could backfire on the regulators.
“The problem is that issuing these businesses a license based on a criminal background check can easily be used by the businesses to confuse the public into thinking their psychic abilities and moral ethics have been validated.”
Sabsay, a software engineer who lives in Oakland, said the EBSS would like to see psychic businesses, especially those that offer psychic healing services, regulated in the same way a drug manufacturer is.
“Let’s figure out what these people claim they can do and then test their abilities,” he said. “Needless to say there is no psychic that could pass such a test.”
Four psychic businesses and the Academy for Psychic Studies did not return calls to the Daily Planet on Friday.
However Shawn Mountcastle, a minister of the Church of Divine Man, which sponsors the Berkeley Psychic Institute, did discuss - in a limited fashion - services offered by the church, which has operated in Berkeley for 28 years.
“The mayor’s recommendation does not really apply to what we do,” she said. “We are not like those businesses (store-front psychic retail) that the recommendation seeks to control. We don’t sell psychic services.”
Mountcastle is right in that any new regulations the city establishes won’t affect BPI, which has been established in Berkeley for many years.
But according to the BPI Web site (www.berkeleypsychic.com) the church does sell a variety of psychic-oriented merchandise and services including psychic tape recordings (between $40 and $90 per set), telephone psychic readings ($39.50 for 10 minutes) and even psychic vacation tours to exotic destinations such as Egypt, the Philippines and Nepal.