Longtime city public works director retires

November 8, 2011

By Warren Kagarise

Bob Brock is not a household name in Issaquah, but projects the former Public Works Engineering director oversaw reshaped the landscape — bridges across Issaquah Creek designed to ease flooding and road projects meant to alleviate traffic congestion.

Brock, 64, retired as the top engineering official in the city Nov. 4 after a lifetime spent in public works roles in California, Wyoming and, for the past dozen years, in Issaquah.

“I’m more of a behind-the-scenes kind of guy. It’s never been my forte to be up there in a suit and tie and everything and being in the foreground,” he said in pre-retirement interview. “I personally like to let my very capable staff get the exposure, No. 1, and the experience to share. It’s them that makes me successful.”

Since joining the city staff in May 1999, Brock supervised road and other infrastructure projects as the city added 19,000 residents through annexations and a home-building boom. Controversy also defined the area, as activists, leaders and residents debated the Southeast Bypass, a proposed road along Tiger Mountain designed to reduce downtown traffic headaches.

Brock led 30 or so Public Works Engineering Department employees from a corner office in City Hall Northwest. The space overlooks a recent city project, a pedestrian connector across Interstate 90 at state Route 900.

In addition to the landmarks, Mayor Ava Frisinger said the legacy Brock left at Public Works Engineering is “a department that is well-integrated and works well with the other departments, and one that has considerable strengths in being able to explain in a really clear manner what the recommendations are and why they are.”

Grace under pressure

In 1999, as city leaders searched for a department director, employees hoped for stability and someone to hold the post long enough to stop a revolving door of Public Works Engineering chiefs.

“He had the professional skills and expertise to explain the workings of projects and things that Public Works Engineering needed to do — and to do so in a very inclusive way with other departments,” Frisinger said. “He was someone who would be able to reduce some of the silo effect that existed at the time.”

Lou Haff, a former King County roads official and the interim Public Works Engineering director before Brock arrived, said the candidate left a mark on the search team.

“We thought that he, not only of course was technically competent, but we felt in the brief time that we’d gotten to know him, that he’d impressed us with his good nature and easygoing demeanor,” Haff said.

Frisinger offered the post to Brock, then the assistant city engineer in Lake Forest, Calif.

“He came in with grace and style, and it was very easy to acclimate to his leadership and understanding what he expected of us,” Public Works Engineering Deputy Director Sheldon Lynne said. “He brought incredible stability to this department.”

Brock landed in Issaquah as crews prepared to start construction on a bridge spanning Issaquah Creek at Newport Way Southwest and Southeast Clark Street.

Meanwhile, the debate about the bypass loomed. Initially, Brock said, plans for the Tiger Mountain road “seemed like a relatively straightforward project,” until anti-bypass and pro-bypass forces pounced on the proposal.

Opponents raised questions about possible environmental damage related to the roadway. Supporters said the city needed another link to improve transportation.

Haff, a consultant on the bypass project, said Brock remained dispassionate and professional amid the storm.

“It’s a very stressful situation, but I think Bob held up under it quite well,” Haff said. “I know internally he probably suffered from some of the same anxiety that I did. That’s natural.”

The issue defined Issaquah politics for more than a decade until City Council members canceled the project in early 2008.

“If it weren’t for the controversy, I really do believe that something could have been done that would have been acceptable to the vast majority,” Brock said. “Politics and other issues kind of got in the way of that.”

From drawing board to reality

The city completed another link to smooth north-south traffic late last year. Brock steered the Interstate 90 Undercrossing from a concept to a finished roadway — a large-scale project undertaken as other cities scaled back public works construction due to the recession. The effort also required a complicated agreement between the city and the U.S. Postal Service before construction could start.

“It’s so complex that you can’t pull a string in one place without unraveling someone’s sweater somewhere else, so to speak,” Brock said.

Colleagues described Brock as amiable and open-minded, especially in balancing officials’ and residents’ concerns about projects. The former Public Works Engineering director learned customer service as a teenager during a stint as a sweeper at Disneyland.

“I’ve never seen him get upset,” city Project Coordinator Pam Fox said. “He’s a very easygoing person. He’s the type of person that you want to keep happy.”

Brock, a dedicated Issaquah Rotary Club member, plans to remain in the service organization and complete some home-improvement projects. In addition to Rotary duties, he is a recent addition to the board at Providence Marianwood, a nonprofit nursing home.

The longtime Squak Mountain resident also plays guitar, and retirement means more opportunities to jam at home and in public.

Brock said Issaquah residents’ commitment to service is a key ingredient for a successful community.

“This really is a unique community,” he said. “You don’t get this many volunteer hours across so many different levels of things that are happening. We’re blessed to have a great population that’s helping us to succeed.”

Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or wkagarise@isspress.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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