ENCINITAS — City Manager Pamela Antil is under fire for engaging in an “inappropriate text exchange” about another city manager in her capacity as a board member of a professional association of local government managers.
The text messages were revealed as part of a defamation lawsuit by a Michigan city official against members of the International City/County Management Association executive board, including Antil, related to a censure vote.
“He just looks like a d—-ebag,” wrote William Fraser in a text message to Antil.
“He is,” Antil wrote in response.
“I already want to punch him in the face,” Fraser wrote.
Antil, a former assistant city manager in Santa Barbara who has served as Encinitas city manager since 2020, is on the executive board of the ICMA, a Washington, D.C.-based group with over 11,000 members.
The executive board oversees the group’s business and “enforces the ICMA Code of Ethics,” according to the organization’s website.
While serving on the board, Antil voted in favor of publicly censuring James Freed, a city manager in Port Huron, Michigan, and stripped his credentialed manager status after the board received a complaint about comments he made against the state’s push for mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations among municipal employees.
In response, Freed filed a defamation and civil conspiracy lawsuit against ICMA and all 21 board members, including Antil, claiming his censure was unlike others in the organization’s past.
Freed alleges the censure was defamatory, harmed his reputation and caused him to suffer economic damages, such as failure to obtain jobs with higher compensation.
“I’m the only city manager that’s ever been censured over social media posts and a private email,” Freed said during an interview with Joe Turner, a former city administrator who now hosts the podcast “City Manager Unfiltered” about city management.
According to text messages obtained by The Coast News, Antil and Fraser engaged in this text exchange during a meeting to hear Freed’s appeal of the board’s censure vote. Fraser ultimately voted against Freed’s censure and provided copies of the text exchange with Antil during discovery in Freed’s lawsuit.
Antil told The Coast News she was advised not to comment due to the ongoing lawsuit.
“(Antil) engaged in an inappropriate text exchange about another city manager,” Turner said. “If she’s willing to go to this length to attack a peer, a colleague that she has never met before, I would have a lot of concerns about what she is willing to do within the organization when it comes to possibly creating a hostile or toxic working environment for those individuals that she disagrees with.”
Ed Meece, a city manager in Polson, Montana, declined to point the finger but acknowledged the exchange between Antil and Fraser could be problematic.
“I think their text messages speak for themselves,” Meece said.
The board’s vote to censure and remove a member’s ICMA credentials has significant professional repercussions for the municipal administrator. While obtaining credentials is voluntary, some city managers say it’s become an essential step to securing a job.
“Once they censure someone who’s younger and looking to move at some point in their career, that can devastate them,” said Stephen King, a county administrator for Rockingham County, Virginia. “That can be a career killer.”
Turner said reasons for censure at ICMA in the past typically consisted of improper donations to a political party or candidate, inappropriate relationships with subordinates, embezzlement or any criminal offense.
The issues began in 2018 when Freed expressed concerns to the organization about the behavior of Martha Perego, then ICMA’s director of member services and ethics. According to Freed, Perego was improperly using the organization’s official Twitter (now X) account “to support a partisan political agenda.”
Freed’s complaint to the ICMA “developed deep and personal animosity toward Mr. Freed,” which led to ethics complaints and investigations into Freed over the next few years, all of which found no wrongdoing.
However, in late 2021, the board censured Freed for authoring a social media post directed at Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and an email to city staff saying he would not enforce a COVID-19 vaccine mandate. Freed’s controversial tweet responded to the city’s successful defense of a Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration complaint regarding potential workplace safety violations related to COVID-19.
Previously, Whitmer had issued a press release alleging that “the City of Port Huron, under Mr. Freed’s leadership, had engaged in serious violations of COVID-19 protocols,” the lawsuit states.
“(Gov. Gretchen Whitmer), you shouldn’t mess with a father who cares about the world his little girl grows up in,” Freed wrote, tagging the governor in the post on Twitter.
Meece said he told his employees similar things regarding the COVID-19 vaccine mandate because it was controversial among city staff.
The ICMA board determined Freed’s actions violated Tenet Three of the group’s ethics code, which says city managers should demonstrate by word and action the highest standards of ethical conduct in all aspects of their lives.
However, several city managers and former members of the association defended Freed’s conduct, saying they felt censure was not an appropriate response due to the COVID-19 pandemic being a stressful time for city governments.
“James Freed received the vaccine himself and was not even anti-vaccine; he was against the idea of having to force employees to get the vaccine when they had the option of getting a test,” Turner said. “His position was that scores of employees, and especially public safety employees, were threatening to quit and leave if they’re going to be given the vaccine mandate.”
After more than 20 years of membership, King and Meece left the ICMA because they felt the organization was shifting away from being a welcoming community for local managers and administrators.
“I was a member of ICMA for 25 years, and because I am a city manager junkie, I find the (Freed) decision of that board on that case very disturbing,” Meece said. “I had been a member since my early days in local government and had just seen ICMA drift farther and farther from being a professional association to more of a political organization.”
Two other censures were issued in the same meeting. In Wyoming, Patrick Davidson sent three years’ worth of text messages between himself and a then-mayor to the governing body after he moved on to a new city, which the board said was unprofessional and targeted the mayor. In Virginia, Dean Rogers attended libertarian political conventions, violating the standard of political neutrality expected in the profession.
Freed’s lawsuit against the ICMA and members of the executive board, including Antil, was removed from Michigan state court to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan due to citizenship diversity since the defendants are residents of multiple states around the U.S.
Todd Shoudy, attorney for Freed, told The Coast News he has since filed a motion to remand the case back to state court, and the motion is currently pending.
CORRECTION: A previous version of the article incorrectly attributed a quote to City Manager Pamela Antil related to controversial text messages. Antil was the one who responded to the initial disparaging comment. We regret the error.
UPDATE: This article has been updated to include additional comments from Joe Turner and Ed Meese.