A profile of Port Huron’s city manager
“I couldn’t resist the idea of coming back to Port Huron,” James Freed said during an interview on Tuesday, Dec. 1. “I’ve always loved Port Huron. I love the people of Port Huron.” Freed returned to the Blue Water area when he became the city manager of Port Huron on June 9, 2014.
He had spent his childhood here, growing up just outside of Port Huron in Kimball Township. In middle school, his family moved near an Air Force base in Dayton, Ohio where they stayed for five years. His father, a pastor, then moved the family to the west side of the state for work. Freed graduated high school in Coldwater, Michigan.
After high school, Freed pursued political science at the University of Indiana. Minoring in social work and international relations, he realized that social work wasn’t right for him. “It was more addressing the problems after they happened. I prefer to prevent them from happening.”
He then pursued public policy, acting as a policy advisor for different senators and representatives and assisted them in their campaigns. “I didn’t really like the politics aspect of it. I didn’t really like the politics of it at all,” he said reflectively, “but I was really fascinated with the policy aspect.”
In order to achieve his degree, Freed had to complete a practicum in which he gained real world experience by serving as assistant city manager in the city of Walled Lake, Michigan in 2007. As assistant city manager he put together proposals, spoke before the city council, and worked with almost every department, including the downtown developmental authority, putting together their initiatives.
After finishing his degree in 2008, Freed was sworn in as the village manager of Lakeview, Michigan. This made him the youngest city manager in U.S. history at the age of 23. Freed proudly touted his achievements of cutting costs, reducing the size of government, and surviving the recession.
The neighboring town of Stanton, Michigan took notice of these achievements. Through a shared service agreement, Freed became the city manager of both Stanton and Lakeview before the age of 25. He continued to serve both cities for about six and a half years until the city of Port Huron became available.
“I had never anticipated on moving,” Freed said. “I was a known quantity. Everyone knew who I was; I knew who everyone else was. I had a good relationship with the council. I had a secure job and I was making good money, about the same as I am now actually. But I couldn’t resist the idea of coming back to Port Huron.”
Despite all of these achievements, Freed says his greatest achievements are the small ones in Stanton and Lakeview. He claims those achievements – brokering shared service agreements with cities and countywide organizations, bringing people together that have never worked together, the cost saving shared service agreements and collaborations between Lakeview and Stanton — highlight good government. He also gives credit to his staff during his time in those cities, “I really pride myself in finding the most brilliant people and convincing them to work for me. So, I found a bunch of people smarter than me and convinced them to come work for me, and they all did excellent work.”
Looking to his career so far in Port Huron, he’s proud of working with the city government to balance the budget for the first time in 15 years and cutting government by $1.7 million all without laying off anyone within his first year of service to the city.
Freed enjoys being the city manager of Port Huron. “One of the things I like about being city manager is that it’s a tough job, it’s really stressful, but I really feel like I’m having an impact on people’s lives. Sometimes you have to deliver tough news that people don’t want to hear – but that’s called leadership.” Freed also said, “People ask, ‘Are you burned out yet?’ and the truth of the matter is I’m more passionate today than I was a decade ago when I first started in government.”
With that passion, Freed is focused on the future. “Now, one of the biggest projects I’m working on is highlighting what the effects are on the next generation and proposing the question, ‘How do we build a stronger, more prosperous future for the next generation?’” Freed continued, “If you play politics, you’re worried about the here and now. But if you’re really in this for the people then you’re looking down the road. You are less worried about self-preservation and more focused on leaving the legacy for the next generation. That’s what I’m focused on.”
To improve the community for the next generation, Freed is focused on what he calls the “less sexy” aspects of public policy – infrastructure, the balance sheet, paying down debt and unfunded liabilities, making sure that the water and sewer system are financially viable, making sure our police and fire departments have what they need to be successful, and getting away from a culture of politics by moving towards a culture of servant-hood leadership.
He intends to lead the culture of servant-hood leadership by example. When asked about why he chose to pursue political science and government roles, Freed responded, “I was in high school during 9/11. That really had a profound impact on me. So I got involved in the political process and government. I really felt like it was one of those times where I was too young to join the armed forces, I was only a sophomore in high school, so I volunteered in local civic groups and started going to the council meetings, getting involved in the local political parties. I thought, ‘How could I build a stronger community? A stronger world?’ When you’re young and idealistic, you always chase those things. But, that’s why I started.”
With all the civil and political unrest in the world, from North Korea to France, the Middle East to here in the United States, it’s difficult to think of a solution to try to fix the world. Freed reflected, “Even when you’re young, you always want to go out and change the world. I thought, if I really want to change the world I need to go home and fix my home town. If you really want to change the world, you should focus on fixing the community you come from. I believe that all politics are local.”