In what one hopes is the final chapter on a controversy that’s racked the LGBTQ+ community in Michigan and their allies, as well as Kalamazoo as a whole, former House Speaker Lee Chatfield has abruptly resigned from his post as CEO of Southwest Michigan First after serving less than two weeks. The announcement came via Chatfield’s Twitter account and in an email announcement by the organization. Chatfield acknowledged that his arrival in Kalamazoo has caused controversy “and for that I am truly sorry.”
At 10:02 this morning Chatfield tweeted, “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, please see the letter of resignation I offered this morning. I remain grateful for having had this incredible opportunity.”
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, please see the letter of resignation I offered this morning. I remain grateful for having had this incredible opportunity. pic.twitter.com/loS4v0kH3t
— Lee Chatfield (@LeeChatfield) February 22, 2021
In regard to amending ELCRA, Chatfield said, “I came into the Legislature with publicly-known beliefs. Since then, I have had many thoughtful and enlightening conversations and have built close friendships that, quite frankly, I did not have before I was elected in 2014. I sought out these opportunities to learn from LGBTQ+ advocates and allies to become more informed.”
Chatfield goes on to express regret that “I was unable to find a compromise that all parties could agree on.”
In other words, he was unwilling to budge on an exemption for religious or moral beliefs. Finally, he says he would always want to uphold the values of the organization, but that seems in conflict with his personal beliefs: “As a Christian, I believe in the Bible. I don’t say that as a shield, and I certainly don’t say that to use as a weapon.”
Chatfield’s appointment began Feb. 11. It immediately caused controversy, as he was notorious during his tenure in the House for obstructing any forward movement on amending the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to include LGBTQ+ people.
At the time, Equality Michigan Executive Director Erin Knott said, “…with his past track record … I don’t know how he’s going to lead this particular organization to the challenge of recruiting businesses to come into our area.”
Knott, who also serves on the Kalamazoo Commission, made a motion at a meeting Feb. 15 to break ties with the Southwest Michigan First. Previously, the city of Kalamazoo paid dues of $10,000 per year to be a member of their Council of 100. After some discussion, there was consensus that Chatfield did not represent the values of the community and the motion passed unanimously.
From the outset, many questioned Chatfield’s appointment: reportedly, a national search was conducted but Chatfield has no experience in economic development. Aside from his six years in the House, he has served as an athletic director at a Christian School. Knott decried the lack of transparency in the hiring process; certainly, Chatfield’s was one that was not conducted implementing a diversity, equity and inclusion lens.
The fallout continued as the president of Kalamazoo Valley Community College resigned from the board of Southwest Michigan First over Chatfield’s hiring. Former KVCC President L. Marshall Washington said in a letter, “For the past two years, I have served as a member of the Board of Directors of Southwest Michigan First. Based on the organization’s governance structure, I did not participate in the recent search process or the hiring of the new chief executive officer. The controversy caused by this decision is unfortunate and in my opinion, could have been avoided.”
Since then, Southwest Michigan First issued a Statement of Values in response to the city of Kalamazoo’s actions. It reads in part, “Starting today, we have updated our official handbook at Southwest Michigan First to more clearly articulate that we prohibit discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation in our hiring process. Though it has always been a practice to treat one another with an equal amount of dignity and respect free of discrimination throughout our company’s existence, we are taking this important step today to make sure it is official. We have listened. We have heard. And now we are taking action.”
Many were puzzled by what came next: Chatfield announced his support for amending ELCRA to include the LGBTQ+ community; still others, including representatives from the Fair and Equal Citizen’s Initiative offered praise. Co-Chair Mira Jourdan said in a press release, “Kalamazoo and southwestern Michigan has long stood up for equal rights and the move to support the citizens’ initiative by Southwest Michigan First and CEO Lee Chatfield should be applauded. We look forward to his active engagement on the issue as we continue to work with the Legislature to pass this initiative.”
At the time, Knott sounded cautious: “I will continue to monitor this situation closely,” Knott said, in a statement.