Waaler stepping down, not out

URBANA - Jack Waaler isn't one of those attorneys who wows listeners with monologues on the intricacies of the law.

The 69-year-old Waaler, somewhat rumpled, is more likely to tell Urbana council members that he needs time to research a legal issue when a question is asked. At most council meetings, he's likely to be seen sitting with his hands behind his head, leaning back in his chair, doing his darnedest to stay awake.

But Champaign and Urbana officials say that Waaler, Urbana's city attorney since 1969 until this past week, is one of the most knowledgeable municipal attorneys in the state. They say he has left behind a long body of legal work that has had a significant impact on Champaign-Urbana.

Waaler on Tuesday stepped down as city attorney and was replaced by his seven-year assistant city attorney, Steve Holz.

But Waaler, who is not the re-tiring type, will continue to work for the city as legal counsel for at least another year, and possibly longer, on a contractual basis.

"I'll stay as long as they want," said Waaler. "I figure I'll be doing about the same thing."

Waaler said he decided to step down as city attorney because he felt it was time for Holz to assume the job and because he didn't want to see Holz look elsewhere for employment.

Colleagues say such a gesture is typical of Waaler, whom they describe as a prince of a guy.

"I talk to Jack several times a week about different things," said Champaign City Attorney Fred Stavins, who has been city attorney for 22 years himself. "I was once in a deposition where we were deposing an expert, and at the end of the deposition, the expert shook Jack's hand and said, 'I think I learned something today.' Jack is a very smart man."

Stavins said he and Waaler have occasional disagreements about the extent and nature of municipal powers. One such argument has lasted for 15 years. Out of the blue, each of them will e-mail each other an article backing up their point of view, he said.

"I can't say we've convinced each other," Stavins said.

Trish Crowley, Champaign's deputy city attorney, said Waaler's upbeat attitude is one of his attributes.

"The really nice thing about Jack is not only does he know and remember stuff, but he's got a really great attitude," Crowley said. "He always says, 'We can work this out; We can find this out; We can find a solution that's satisfactory to every interest.' And generally, he does."

Former Urbana Mayor Jeff Markland, who served as mayor from 1977 to 1993, said the people of Urbana "have been so fortunate to have Jack. He is one of the best, if not the best, municipal attorneys in Illinois. I learned that over the years."

But Markland wasn't immediately bowled over by Waaler. He said when he became mayor in 1977, after four years as an alderman, he didn't like that Waaler would always say, "I'll get back to you" when confronted with a legal question. Waaler always did get back, Markland said, but he was a hard charger who didn't like waiting.

But as the months went by, Markland said, he be-came convinced Waaler was an excellent attorney.

"One day, Jack was in the office, and we were looking at something," Markland recalled. "I told him, 'I want you to know I think we're fortunate to have you, and you're great.'

"Jack looked me in the eye, didn't crack a smile and said, 'Mayor, you're smarter than I gave you credit for.'"

Giving an example of Waaler's legal prowess, Markland said Waaler developed the legal means in the mid 1970s to enable the city to annex the Myra Ridge subdivision, using a 300-foot-wide path to get the city boundaries to the south Urbana subdivision without using illegal strip annexation.

Markland's replacement, current Mayor Tod Satterthwaite, trumpets Waaler's "encyclopedic knowledge of municipal law" and his memory of municipal agreements that may have been - due to employee turnover - forgotten about by other entities.

"He's just been such a valuable asset to the city," Satterthwaite said.

Waaler got his start for the city in 1969, when his friend Charlie Zipprodt was elected mayor and asked him to become city attorney, which was then a part-time job. (The job would remain part time until about 1990.)

"Zipprodt asked me if I wanted to do it, and I said, 'Shoot, that sounds like fun. I've never done that be-fore,'" recalled Waaler. "I thought it would be a lark. It turned out to be a career. I didn't even know what chapter the municipal code was in."

Before becoming city attorney, Waaler had worked as an assistant Champaign County state's attorney when his brother, Robert Waaler, held the office in the early 1960s. He later served as the county's public defender for a few years. He's a 1959 graduate of the University of Illinois law school.

In his down time, Waaler enjoys downhill skiing and woodworking. He wrestled in college, and Markland says Waaler is a good softball player.

His wife of 38 years, Virginia, works at the UI as director of the China executive leadership programs for the International Studies Program.

"We regularly have the Chinese over to our home," Waaler said. "We've had probably 500 Chinese communists over to our home. They're perfectly nice, pleasant people."

He and his wife have three sons and two grandchildren.

Virginia Waaler said she's glad her husband isn't retiring. Retirement doesn't suit him, she said.

"He's so happy doing what he's doing," she said. "He loves his job. I think he likes it because he feels he can make a difference."

Holz, Waaler's successor, said learning from such a legal veteran has been wonderful.

"What's been great about Jack is he treated me as an equal when I came on board when clearly I was not," said Holz. "He builds people up by treating you in the way he wants you to be. It's just amazing how effective that is."

Urbana Chief Administrative Officer Bruce Walden, who has worked for the city of Urbana 26 years, calls Waaler a workhorse.

"Jack is prolific," Walden said. "He really cranks out the work."

Walden calls Waaler his closest adviser throughout his career in Urbana.

"I value his judgment," Walden said. "He not only has a good legal mind, he has a lot of wisdom. I want Jack to help the city of Urbana as long as he's willing to do so."

A legacy of municipal landmark cases

URBANA - City Attorney Jack Waaler has worked on many cases and agreements over the years, some of which were argued all the way up to the Illinois Supreme Court. Here's a sampling:

- He was part of the negotiating team that produced the landmark agreements involving the cities, Savoy, the county and the Urbana-Champaign Sanitary District. Simply put, the 1992 agreements gave Champaign, Urbana and Savoy the power to require developments at their fringes to annex into the city or sign an annexation agreement if they wanted sanitary service. In return for the valued power - which most cities enjoy because they have their own sewer department - the cities agreed to take over maintenance of the Boneyard Creek from the sanitary district.

- In 2000, he was part of the Urbana and Champaign legal team that killed the proposed incorporation of a village, to be called Big Grove, that would have surrounded much of Urbana and stunted its future growth. "He was the general, leading our legal staffs," said Champaign City Attorney Fred Stavins. Waaler credits Steve Holz, who last week assumed Waaler's job, with doing much of the work for Urbana.

- He brought suit against the owner of several rental properties, Michael Fuerst, for violations of building code or-dinances, leading the court to fine Fuerst $16,560 in 1988. Fuerst would respond years later by purchasing an ongoing series of ads criticizing "Urbana bozos."

- Waaler would bring a 1977 test case with co-counsel Marlin Smith, heard by the state Supreme Court, that greatly expanded the powers of cities to use their bonding powers for economic development purposes. The case allowed economic development to be considered a legitimate public purpose and not "an objectionable loan of credit to private parties."

"The case meant that a city could issue a bond, the purpose of which was economic development," Waaler said. "Before that case, there was a question whether city bonds could only be used for a highway or a new police station."

- In 1987, working in his private practice for the village of Mount Zion, Waaler successfully defended the village's right to regulate the size, lighting and spacing of billboards in a case before the Fourth District Appellate Court. A Macon County Circuit Court judge had ruled against the village and argued that state law pre-empted village zoning regulations.

You can reach Mike Monson at 217-351-5370 or at mmonson@news-gazette.com.

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