FIRST ON THE DAILY SIGNAL—The professional association for city managers issued a public censure against a Michigan city official in part because he promised firefighters and police that he wouldn’t impose a hypothetical vaccine mandate but would instead follow alternative COVID-19 protocols. Now, he’s suing to restore his good name.

“I was honestly heartbroken to see the [International City/County Management Association] publicly censure me, faulting me for violating a vaccine mandate that didn’t exist,” James Freed, city manager of Port Huron, Michigan, told The Daily Signal in a written statement.

The International City/County Management Association serves as the major professional association for city managers across the U.S. The organization claims to be politically neutral, but Freed says that it censured him in part as retaliation after he complained about an ICMA leader’s left-wing political activity on Twitter, the social media platform now called X.

The management association appears to have believed that Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, had imposed a vaccine mandate, although she did not. The association censured Freed in part for vowing that he wouldn’t enforce such a mandate. The censure mentioned Freed’s response to Whitmer after the governor falsely claimed that his city had violated COVID-19 protocols.

Freed spoke to The Daily Signal before the Supreme Court ruled in his favor on an unrelated matter regarding his decision to block another user on Facebook.


The story traces back to November 2018, when Freed noticed that a Twitter account with the handle @ICMAEthics started “liking” posts that opposed Republicans.

Freed wrote a letter to Martha Perego, the ICMA’s director of member services and ethics who ran the account. He noted the account’s “increasingly partisan” activity, saying its handle “leads the public to believe that this type of social media activity and behavior represents the members of our association.”

“I am requesting that either you delete and ‘unlike’ any political activity and statements that may conflict with our Code of Ethics, or simply change your Twitter handle to something that does not appear to represent ICMA,” Freed wrote to Perego.

Marc Ott, executive director of the International City/County Management Association, wrote a letter to Freed one month later, saying he had directed Perego to remove political activity from the Twitter account and disconnect it from the ICMA. Freed thought that was the end of the matter.

Yet ICMA launched an investigation into Freed, claiming that he had violated the management association’s code of ethics by sharing information about an official ethics complaint in an improper venue. Freed had shared his concerns about the @ICMAEthics Twitter activity in a private Listserv for the Michigan Municipal Executives Association.

On Jan. 28, 2018, Jessica Cowles, ICMA’s ethics adviser and an assistant to Perego, called Freed to notify him that the management association had launched an ethics investigation into his behavior. In the call, which Freed recorded and made available on the “City Manager Unfiltered” podcast, Freed repeatedly told Cowles that he had no intention of filing a formal ethics complaint against Perego. But Cowles didn’t appear to receive the message.

In June 2019, the ICMA Committee of Professional Conduct cleared Freed of the accusations in the complaint. Later that year, the ICMA investigated another ethics complaint against Freed, claiming that his social media posts were political. The ICMA’s Committee of Professional Conduct ultimately cleared Freed in that complaint, as well.

In his lawsuit against the International City/County Management Association, Freed argues that these investigations were “frivolous” acts of “retaliation” and signs of things to come.


During the COVID-19 pandemic, Freed followed the guidance of health agencies, but faced a fine and ridicule from Michigan’s Democratic governor, Whitmer, over a false report that he had not done so.

Matthew Hartman, an inspector at the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration, issued a $6,300 fine to Port Huron, where Freed is city manager, after visiting on July 21, 2020. Hartman later testified under oath that he burned his notes from that visit, the Detroit News reported.

Hartman had not witnessed any city employee who wasn’t wearing a face mask or was violating COVID-19 rules, but he claimed that employees he interviewed said they saw such violations. He also said he destroyed emails from his supervisor regarding the case.

Hartman confessed this in a deposition to Todd Shoudy, an attorney for Port Huron. Shoudy later notified Michigan’s occupational safety and health agency that he planned to depose its director, Bart Pickelman. Six days later, the agency announced it would dismiss the case against Port Huron.

Freed urged the state Legislature to investigate the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s governance structure.

“My heart breaks for all the small businesses and mom-and-pops that didn’t have an expert legal team, who didn’t have the resources to put MIOSHA under oath,” Freed told The Detroit News at the time. Port Huron’s appeal cost between $15,000 and $20,000.

MIOSHA dropped the fine in November 2021.

Whitmer, Michigan’s governor, had said the agency fined only employers who “flouted” COVID-19 rules.

On the same day MIOSHA dropped the fine, Freed posted a Breitbart story on Instagram, tagging Whitmer.

“@gewhitmer you shouldn’t mess with a father who cares about the world his little girl grows up in,” the city manager wrote.

Non-Existent Vaccine Mandate

Also in November 2021, the U.S. Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued an emergency temporary standard requiring large employers— those with 100 employees or more—to make employees take a COVID-19 vaccine or get tested regularly for the disease. OSHA’s emergency temporary standard didn’t apply to Port Huron, but Freed anticipated that MIOSHA would apply similar rules.

“I did everything I could to protect my employees during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Freed told The Daily Signal.

He said he prepared to “follow the testing regimen” that OSHA presented as an alternative to the vaccine requirement. Even though OSHA’s temporary standard didn’t apply to Port Huron, he anticipated that MIOSHA would adopt the temporary standard.

Freed said many city employees told him they would quit if he forced them to take a vaccine, so even though he had taken a COVID-19 vaccine himself, he decided on the option that didn’t mandate the vaccine for others. The city manager sent a letter to employees stating, “I will never enforce a vaccine mandate upon my employees.”

Freed predicted that a federal judge would issue an injunction against any such mandate, and that the Supreme Court also would rule against it. The Supreme Court unanimously blocked the rule in January 2022.

Freed insisted that Congress makes laws, “not unelected bureaucrats.”

“I felt the liberty and personal choice of my employees warranted protection, and I needed to send a clear message to my employees that I would not force them to be vaccinated in order to avoid losing critical employees that would have been difficult to replace,” Freed told The Daily Signal.

The Censure

On July 5, 2022, the International City/County Management Association publicly censured Freed, in part for his apparent unwillingness to enforce a vaccine mandate that didn’t exist. The association sent a press release to media and issued a post on its website announcing the censure. Freed has highlighted the differences between the documents.

The ICMA Executive Board voted to censure Freed on June 11, 2022.

“The board determined Mr. Freed’s personal social media post directed to Michigan’s governor following the city’s successful appeal of a state workplace safety violation did not reflect the highest standards of ethical conduct and integrity and was especially inappropriate for an ICMA-credentialed manager,” the association said in the press release.

“The board concluded Mr. Freed’s preemptive declaration to city employees that he would never implement a specific law or policy when it is the manager’s duty to do so is contrary to the principles outlined in Tenet 3 of the [ethics] code,” the statement continued. “Finally, the board found his commentary to a colleague on the Michigan Municipal Executives listserv failed to adhere to his ethical obligation to treat colleagues with professional respect.”

The ICMA’s website post went into greater detail on the first two counts against Freed. For the post about Whitmer, the association claimed Freed failed to fulfill his “ethical responsibility” to ensure that his “conduct builds trust and respect with elected officials as well as the public.”

When it came to the issue of a vaccine mandate, the ICMA acted as though Freed had vowed not to enforce an existing law.

The management association said on its website: “The board concluded (1) a member has an affirmative duty to follow the law as outlined in Tenet 3’s commitment to honesty and integrity; (2) a member may choose to resign from their position if they find they cannot implement a law or policy because it conflicts with their personal or professional beliefs; and (3) a manager has a responsibility to ensure their conduct enhances public trust in their position, their organization, and the local government management profession. The board determined his preemptive declaration to city employees that he would never implement a specific law or policy was contrary to the principles in Tenet 3.”

Before the public censure, the International City/County Management Association allowed Freed to appeal its recommendation for a censure. He did appeal, and the ICMA rejected his appeal.

Among other things, the association took issue with his complaint that “unelected bureaucrats” do not make laws because “it overlooked the fact that the governor is an elected official.” Whitmer played no role in OSHA’s emergency temporary standard, however.

During Freed’s June 11, 2022, appeal hearing, ICMA board members sent text messages condemning him as a “douchebag” and saying they wanted to “punch him in the face.”

William Fraser, city manager of Montpelier, Vermont, messaged Pam Anthill, city manager of Encinitas, California.

“He just looks like a douchebag,” Fraser wrote to Anthill.

“He is,” Anthill responded.

“I already want to punch him in the face,” Fraser added.

Fraser told The Daily Signal he regrets making those comments.

“During the hearing about Mr. Freed’s ethics violations, I sent a private text message to a colleague which was uncomplimentary to Mr. Freed,” he wrote in a statement Thursday. “I very much regret making those comments.”

“Notwithstanding those remarks, I voted against issuing a public censure to Mr. Freed,” Fraser added. “I am no longer a defendant in Mr. Freed’s civil suit and have completed my term as a member of the ICMA executive board.”

Fifteen days after the ICMA formally censured Freed, the Port Huron Mayor and City Council sent the association a letter in which it stood by Freed.

“In consultation with our legal counsel, we strongly disagree with your findings,” the mayor and council wrote.

“No law or pending law was preemptively declared to be violated,” the elected city leaders added. “You provided no such evidence to support your claim. On the contrary, our city manager took steps, by words and action, to comply with all current laws and any pending laws, while at the same time respecting the civil liberties of our dedicated employees.”

“Additionally, although you may not like professional criticism of elected or appointed officials, it is lawful [and] ethical by ICMA standards and constitutionally protected,” the city leaders wrote. “Our city manager did not breach or erode public trust.”

The mayor and council members declared their “confidence and trust” in Freed, asking the ICMA to “retract your baseless censure.”

Despite the city council’s support, Freed worries that the public censure may prevent him from getting a job in any other jurisdiction. While the city council has supported him, the censure may still stymie his career.

The Lawsuit

Freed sued ICMA and others in September 2022, alleging defamation, false light invasion of privacy, and conspiracy against him. The Port Huron city manager seeks $75,000 per defendant ($25,000 per claim), plus costs, interest, and attorney’s fees. That doesn’t include emotional and embarrassment damages, which the jury must decide.

“Even though ICMA’s case against me is based on their false understanding of the situation on the ground in Michigan at the time, the professional organization has refused to revoke the public censure which is very damaging to my professional reputation,” Freed told The Daily Signal. “Sadly, I am left with no other recourse but to sue to restore my good name and protect my ability to provide for my family.”

Neither the International City/County Management Association nor Anthill nor Whitmer’s office responded to The Daily Signal’s request for comment by publication time.

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