Meitz putting health first after long career as Waukesha's city attorney

Todd Ponath
Curt Meitz, the Waukesha city attorney, is retiring next month.
Published on: 3/25/2014

Curt Meitz has been fighting for 10 years. Some days are better than others.

But Meitz, the city's longtime attorney, admits that the last eight to 10 months have been a struggle. There are times when it's evident to him that he needs to slow down.

"It's very frustrating," Meitz said, referring to his multiple sclerosis, which he was diagnosed with in 2004. "I sometimes have to leave council meetings to get my vision better and get my thoughts."

Given his condition, and with his four-year seat up for re-election, Meitz, at 62, began re-evaluating his career last year.

Did Meitz — who at one point during his career didn't take a vacation for three years — want to continue sacrificing his health to keep grinding away with his job as the city attorney, a position he has held since 1985?

"Stress makes it worse," Meitz said. "So I really looked at my health and family first."

And when his daughter, Kaersten, an all-state swimmer at Waukesha South, received a full-ride athletic scholarship to Purdue University in the fall it made the choice to retire even easier.

"It was a no-brainer," Meitz said.

But through it all, Meitz has continued to serve the city, adding to his lengthy resume.

Meitz, who received his law degree from Marquette University, had stints as a public defender in Racine County and prosecutor in the City of West Allis as well as working in a private practice before becoming the assistant city attorney in Waukesha.

"My criminal law background was good for this job, as we deal with a lot of the same issues and principles as a city attorney," Meitz said.

A few months into his assistant position in 1985 he found himself as the city attorney after the former attorney resigned for health reasons. He was challenged the following spring but never again faced opposition for his seat.

"I didn't anticipate staying here this long," Meitz said. "I love the work. I like the variety because you get into a number of areas in representing 20 to 25 bodies, commissions and the Common Council. You get into a lot of unique areas."

He said this includes sometimes working with the state Department of Natural Resources and enforcing ordinances on behalf of them, while other times in court against them.

An example, Meitz said, was when he successfully fought the DNR in the early 1990s in state Supreme Court, saying the city didn't have to comply with radium standards at the time.

The DNR said the city needed to build a plant even though the Environmental Protection Agency had not set a radium standard. Meitz said negotiating a settlement saved the city $70 million.

And none of the documents in the city's application for Great Lakes water leaves City Hall without Meitz and his staff's approval.

Given his experience on the issue, he represented many municipalities in the state and others around the country that had radium problems in Washington, D.C., in 2002 where he argued against EPA radium standards.

Before that, Meitz was instrumental in putting together a comprehensive ethics code for public officials during his first year as city attorney. He said Waukesha was one of the first municipalities in the state where employees were subject to an ethics code.

He also was before the U.S. Supreme Court in getting an ordinance upheld that put restrictions on where porn shops can be located in the community.

"I've never lost a case before the Supreme Court," Meitz said. "I never wanted taxpayers to get cheated. Not taking a vacation didn't bother me because I would get energized by it."

However, as he was pounding away at cases, his body was soon showing signs of the disease that confined his dad to a wheelchair.

"What happened was I started fluttering," Meitz recalled. "I had blurred eye vision. There was a late Common Council meeting that lasted until 2 a.m., and when I woke up my eyesight was totally blurred."

Knowing that his grandfather and uncle had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's disease), Meitz's mind immediately turned to them. That's why when he was diagnosed with MS after a battery of tests, it was somewhat of a sigh of relief.

"Although there's no cure, it's not necessarily a death sentence," he said.

Even so, over the last decade, he has battled with his vision and struggled with concepts as the MS at times impacts his cognitive abilities.

"My strong part was arguing matters in court, and you get to a point where you don't trust your short-term memory," Meitz said. "It's more trying to process issues."

Meitz takes oral medication every day and takes his fitness seriously. After further tests, he realized the disease was hereditary.

As a result, he and his two children have taken a proactive approach. Meitz said because "there's a clear link between a lack of vitamin D and MS" his children take 2,000 units of vitamin D daily, more than five times the recommended amount. Meitz takes 10,000 units.

"The higher the vitamin D, the less attacks you get," Meitz said. "The remissions tend to stay longer."

He compares this proactive approach to his long career.

"We practiced preventive law vs. reactive law," Meitz said. "It was successful for over 30 years. We gave the best objective, independent analysis. I had an open-door policy."

Who will occupy the office Metiz has been in since the 1980s will be determined on Tuesday. Meitz said that although he generally likes to stay out of the election process, he has endorsed Plan Commissioner and former Waukesha County Circuit Court Judge Rick Congdon over attorney Brian Running.

"I compare it to a doctor closing down a practice who wants to leave patients with the best that's out there, and there's no question who has the qualifications," Meitz said. "His qualifications are clear in his public experience and his background in working with the SEWRPC (Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission).

However, Meitz said if he had his way, the city attorney wouldn't be decided in an election. He didn't always feel this way, but he said that, given some of the statements and the qualifications of people who have run for the position, he has changed his stance.

Now, he thinks the city attorney should be appointed by a panel.

"Politics should stay out of this position," Meitz said. "A set of qualifications should be set with an amount of experience. It's never an exact science, but at least on paper you're getting the best-qualified candidate. It's a skilled position."

It's a position he has been passionate about but one that he will step down from to do more traveling with his family, including to India with his daughter in a couple of weeks, to Estonia to visit his wife's family and some lifeguarding at the local YMCA.

He might also do some part-time teaching to pass on his love for law.

"People ask me if I now want to open my own private practice," Meitz said. "If I wanted to do that, I would have run for another four years. But if it's available, I'd like to lecture, as I've been a defender at every level, and I'd be very happy and fortunate to have the opportunity to now share my experiences."