Every day’s an adventure
Interview by Marcy Stamper
Bob Gorski retired June 1 as building official for Okanogan County, where he estimates he inspected more than 10,000 structures in the two decades he was with the department. Despite some run-ins with people who resisted the permit requirements, he loved the job and approached it with humor.
Have you lived in this house long?
I’ve been here since ’97. When I bought this place it was just a rock pile. I took about 120 yards of dirt and a lot of work to plant flower gardens and get things to grow here. I planted those willow trees when they were about that big around, and the fir tree and the birch tree. The cherry tree – it was a Japanese flowering and I finally got upset with it – it just wouldn’t do anything, so I finally cut the top off. I’m going to put a birdhouse or something up there. Last year, I counted – I had 54 different kinds of flowers in this yard.
Have you always grown flowers?
Yeah, you’ve gotta have color in life. It makes you cheerful; it makes you feel good.
We just went down to Bryce Canyon and Grand Canyon and Zion, Montana, Idaho – just a good road trip.
Did you hike down into the Grand Canyon?
My back’s too bad for that. I would have liked to have taken some of the trails, but I don’t walk real well. Maybe that’s part of it…. No, I made up my mind I just wanted to retire. I figured it was somebody else’s turn. This job took a lot of personal relationships. Public relations, as far as I’m concerned, it’s the biggest part of the job. The code – you read the books, you study, you become certified, you take the test.
It was a very satisfying job. I say government irritates me a little bit with all the rules and regulations, yet at the same time, that’s what I did for a living, so I felt that we are here to serve people, not just hand them a form and have them fill it out. I want code compliance; I want smoke alarms in bedrooms; I want handrails on stairways. Those are life and safety issues.
You would end up having to go out to a site numerous times?
There are six required inspections and we may end up, on some houses, doing eight, nine, 10 inspections. Back when I first started, there was just me and one secretary. Now there’s two inspectors, a building official, a plans tester, a half-time permit technician and a full-time administrative secretary. When I first started, you’d get 200 to 250 permits a year. By 1991, it had jumped to about 450. We cover 5,300 square miles, from the Canadian border all the way to Wells Dam and back up in the boon tulies, all the way to Grand Coulee, all the way to the county line at Washington Pass.
How long have you lived in the Methow?
I moved here in June of 1980. I was a carpenter. I left the coast because I was superintendent over there for a couple of outfits. One day I was driving down the freeway between Tacoma and Seattle and I said, “I’m done.”
Was it the traffic?
It was the traffic; it was the stress. I built houses here in the mid-’60s, early ’70s, all over this county. One day I told my wife, “We’re driving over to the Methow and look around.” We’ve been here ever since.
Running the whole department wasn’t stressful?
Oh, my god, no. I loved driving from here over the Loup in the morning – it would give me a chance to organize in my head what I was going to do in the day.
You must have gotten an interesting perspective on the culture and the economy here.
The Methow historically was always lots of residential, pretty upscale homes. Summer cabins that people build over here for $800,000, 1 million bucks. I’ve been in $3 million houses, $5 million houses. I kept pretty close tabs on that kind of stuff. We saw what you would call an average home, what a young couple would start out with, and then older, retired people built their dreams.
The north end of the county – there’s some gorgeous areas. I met a lot of people up there that I’m friends with today, and ruffled a few people. The north end has a little bit more – what’s the word I want to use? They don’t want government much, period. We’d have to go out and post people for building without permits, and then on occasion we were flat asked to leave property. I remember a gentleman – I’m driving down the lane as he’s coming out; I’ve got this big county truck – and he looks at it and I stop and he says, “Did you bring your own body bag?”
How did you even find these people?
Most of them were turned in by their neighbors; the rest you would notice on your regular route. It’s not a pleasant thing to have to do – it used to feel a little scary. Trying to get them to come in and comply was probably the only headache I had on the job. Everybody goes, “Why don’t you guys carry guns?” I go, “OK, I carry a pistol, they get a rifle; I carry a rifle, they get a machine gun; I carry a machine gun, they get a tank. Where does it end?” No job is worth that.
So you did residential, commercial, every kind of structure?
You bet. Schools, churches. I still have a little bit of bad taste about the school here, the roof leaking and everything. On a deal like that, by the codebook, they’re required to hire a special inspector because it’s a school district, because you can’t be there every day. Then I would come along and do a walk-through with him. I remember walking on that roof and said, “This roof’s gonna leak.” Oh, did I piss off some people, I don’t know how else to say it.
You can’t deny a permit because it’s going to leak?
No, that’s just my personal opinion. I’ve been a carpenter since I was 19 years old. To me, it didn’t make sense to build a 4/12 roof that big, and then you got all those little fake roofs on it. I knew that’s going to ice-dam and it’s going to leak.
If it leaks, isn’t that ultimately a safety issue because it will compromise the structure?
To a certain point, but if it’s designed by a licensed engineer and architect, it meets all the codes. But I didn’t feel like they took into account the weather in the Methow.
I had people calling me, coming to my home, saying, “Bob, you gotta close the school down; it’s leaking.” I drove up there and I couldn’t believe it. They had these big barrels with water just coming through, and unhooked electrical stuff. So I made them close the school down.
The job – I was very fortunate. When I moved here, I was working out at the Tice Ranch. I fell off a ladder. I went through three or four years of medical problems. Finally they sent me to a specialist, and he said I broke my neck.
You were walking around for three years with a broken neck?
I knew there was something wrong, but I’m listening to these guys saying there’s nothing wrong. I still have pain with it today. That’s how I got started in this business – I couldn’t swing a hammer. So I drove over and introduced myself at the county because L&I was going to make me an attendant at a gas station or have me drive a forklift. I studied my butt off and became the first certified guy in the whole county.
Another major thing that I saw in my time – I saw straw-bale houses. I didn’t know what a straw-bale house was, so I’m on the phone to other building departments. They’re not in the codebook, but if they get an engineer to design it, we issue the permit. I’ve seen cordwood houses. You know how you split cordwood for burning? They would stack it, and put mortar and build houses out of them. Then you’ve got pods – just like you see in Star Trek. I was called old school, old hat. One of the planning directors called me “folksy,” and I said, “I’ll take that as a compliment.”
What do you plan to do now that you’ve retired?
I’m loving it. One day I slept in till a quarter to 9. I can always dink around out here – there’s always weeds to pull, trees to trim. There’s my grandson to play with. I tell him stories. We sit out here and look at the stars – he knows where the Big Dipper is. I’ve got nine grandkids and I want to spend more time getting to know them a little better.
You didn’t have a list of projects you wanted to get to?
I’m a funny guy – I’m not a list guy. My approach about life is – it sounds kind of corny – but everyday’s an adventure. If you plan things, usually plans fall short. So I just take it as it comes.
Work is the same approach as my personal life – it should be fun.
Don’t take yourself so damn seriously that you can’t laugh at yourself. I shouldn’t tell you this, but I’m gonna anyway, cause I’m retired and they can’t beat me up. Every once in a while, we would play Pictionary, especially in the late afternoon in winter months, ’cause the workload would slow down – the whole staff. We enjoyed it; we used to laugh our butts off. The best job I ever had – loved every minute of it.