Chatfield leaves Southwest Michigan First, citing ‘unfortunate controversy’

Southwest Michigan

KALAMAZOO, Mich. (WOOD) — Facing community pushback, former Michigan House Speaker Lee Chatfield has resigned from Southwest Michigan First less than two weeks after being named the head of the regional economic development agency.

In a letter of resignation to the organization’s board that Chatfield posted to Twitter Monday morning, he said he was stepping down as CEO “for the betterment of the Kalamazoo Community, the businesses that the board of directors represent, the staff at SWMF and for the sake of my conscience.”

He told the board the organization “deserve(d) someone with a blank political slate.”

“This last week has caused some tension that certainly our team didn’t hope to happen and really want to begin to heal from,” said Carla Sones, who is now serving as Southwest Michigan First’s interim CEO and president. 

The city of Kalamazoo and The Kalamazoo Promise pulled support from Southwest Michigan First after the Feb. 11 announcement that Chatfield had been hired. The Kalamazoo County Commission also discussed pulling its support, along with $75,000 in annual pay for economic development services, though it has not held a vote yet.

 “I felt withdrawing as a Council 100 member was critical until we were able to see whether or not Southwest Michigan First was aligned with our broader community values,” said Kalamazoo City Commissioner Erin Knott, who presented the motion to pull support. 

At issue were Chatfield’s past comments on inclusion and the LGBTQ community; specifically, his opposition to adding sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of traits protected by Michigan’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act.

“Regarding amending the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act, I came into the Legislature with publicly-known beliefs. Since then, I have had had many thoughtful and enlightening conversions and have built close friendships that, quite frankly, I did not have before I was elected…” Chatfield wrote in his resignation letter, going on to say he used those relationships to become more informed about LGBTQ issues and that they guided his personal views.

Chatfield, a Republican who represented Levering in the northern Lower Peninsula before being term-limited out, also said that his goal was to find a way for religious institutions to be able to uphold their beliefs without being sued.

He wrote that he believed everyone was entitled to civil rights and that he personally has not and would not discriminate based on sexual orientation or gender identity, saying “That’s just not who I am.”

But he went on to admit he was “walking a fine line” regarding his opinions on equity and said he could not apologize for his conservatives beliefs.

“Many of my political opinions were causing an uproar” in the Kalamazoo area, he wrote. “That much was obvious. I thought I could come into a community and find ways to collaborate even despite some past disagreements, which I was very willing to do so (sic), but I was wrong.”

He apologized for causing “some unfortunate controversy,” saying “it pains me to see my political past separate a welcoming community.” He specifically apologized to the employees of Southwest Michigan First, saying they should not have had to deal with negative backlash or the criticism of his politics.

He apologized for causing “some unfortunate controversy,” saying “it pains me to see my political past separate a welcoming community.” He specifically apologized to the employees of Southwest Michigan First, saying they should not have had to deal with negative backlash or the criticism of his politics.

Knott says Chatfield’s resignation sends a strong message to other legislators who will also reach their term limits soon.

“It’s imperative that these lawmakers do right by the LGBTQ community or else they run the risk of not being employable after their legislative service,” Knott said.

As people in the Kalamazoo area started to voice their concerns about Chatfield, Southwest Michigan First last week updated its handbook to codify that it did not discriminate based on gender identity or sexual orientation, though it noted that had always been its policy. Chatfield told News 8 the next day that he was prepared to work in a nonpartisan role and build relationships with local leaders.

Southwest Michigan First says Chatfield was hired through a consulting firm. They say they are now working to refine the criteria by which they look for a CEO to ensure they align with the company and community values.

“We fully recognize that the search process really let down the community, let all parties involved down including the board of directors and the team here at Southwest Michigan First, along with community partners, our investors … it really let quite a few people down,” Sones said. “I can only speak for myself and the team members I work with every day and I think we deeply, deeply care.”

Sones says she hopes the organization can mend fences with investors and community partners following Chatfield’s resignation. 

The organization also announced it will create a new Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Board Committee and add an executive role to work on diversity and equity issues.

“This morning our newly appointed CEO, Lee Chatfield, submitted his resignation to the Southwest Michigan First Board of Directors. At our 10:00 a.m. meeting today, the board accepted Lee’s resignation. We wish the very best for Lee and his family.

“In recent days, the announcement of our selection to fill the vacant CEO position has caused a great deal of disappointment by our team members, community partners, investors, donors and board members of Southwest Michigan First. Many have questioned our agency’s commitment to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion as well as our human capital and CEO search processes.

“We welcome the conversations, challenging questions and opportunities to listen, learn and grow. What is abundantly clear is that our search process fell well below the standard expected by our board, our community partners, investors, donors and importantly, our Southwest Michigan First team.

“As we renew and begin again our search process for our next CEO, we are committed to and will assure a process that is open, transparent and inclusive of those who depend upon us to improve economic development and employment opportunities for all we serve. We recognize that increased prosperity has not often been experienced by our communities of color, Latinx communities and our LGBTQ+ community. We remain committed to increasing access to capital, entrepreneurial opportunities, leadership development programs and representation at board tables.

“In 2017, the Southwest Michigan First Board of Directors voted to support the amendment to expand the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act. We supported that legislation then and we support it today. Words, policies, and actions matter. We believe that communities, individuals and organizations get better when we engage in tough important conversations about discrimination and racism. Southwest Michigan First is committed to the conversations and actions necessary so that all in our community prosper and are free from the debilitating impact of discrimination of any kind.

“The first step in our agency’s journey is to establish and appropriately resource an executive level position for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Southwest Michigan First. Additionally, we will create a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Board Committee to make certain that all of our human capital policies, procedures and practices mirror the expectations made clear by our community partners, investors, donors, board members and team members. With humility, we apologize to all who we have disappointed.”

Southwest Michigan First

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