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Barista-flashing cop triggers new state law

An encounter that involved a sheriff’s detective flashing a barista at a drive-up coffee stand has led to a new state law that Spokane County will use to expand the size of the volunteer panel that overturned the detective’s firing.

It took nearly three years, an act of the Legislature and a signature from Gov. Chris Gregoire, to get from the flashing to the expansion. But county commissioners said Tuesday they will probably grow the board from three to five members sometime this summer.

Sheriff’s detective Joseph Mastel was fired in June 2006 after exposing himself to a barista at the On Alert coffee stand in Airway Heights. He was off-duty at the time and claimed he had a “flirtatious relationship” with the woman who was about 30 years younger than him. The woman said she was taken by surprise by the incident and felt violated by it.

Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich fired Mastel, but after Mastel received a deferred sentence for an indecent exposure charge from a municipal judge in Airway Heights, the detective appealed to the three-member Civil Service Commission to get his job back. He told the board he took some responsibility, but not full responsibility, and was under “extreme stress” on the job and at home when the incident happened.

Before the commission could rule, however, one member recused himself from the case because he had a conversation with a county prosecutor handling Mastel’s case. That left the commission with just two members to handle the appeal and the remaining members decided to change Mastel’s dismissal to a one-year unpaid suspension that allowed him to collect some of his unused sick time and retire.

Commissioners disagreed with the decision but couldn’t appeal it. They looked for ways to change the board, but state law sets the number at three.

State Rep. Timm Ormsby, D-Spokane, a sponsor of the legislation, said a bill to expand the commission to five sailed through the House unanimously two years in a row, but this was the first year it also passed the Senate. Gregoire signed it last week.

The barista flashing incident was never specifically mentioned when county officials lobbied for the change, Ormsby said. Instead, they stressed the need for expanding the commission’s diversity.

But Knezovich said the Mastel incident was definitely the catalyst for the change. He said the county never wants to get in the position again where a recusal knocks out one-third of the board for an important decision. He’s going to stay out of the selection for the new members to avoid suggestions of favoritism.

County Board Chairman Todd Mielke said Tuesday advertisements will appear soon for two more members to add to the commission, and that an ordinance to expand the commission will be unveiled soon after the new state law takes effect on July 1.