Editor’s note: This story has been updated with statements from Southwest Michigan First.
KALAMAZOO — Former GOP House Speaker Lee Chatfield has resigned as CEO of Southwest Michigan First, a week after his appointment generated controversy among local officials and some in the local business community.
Chatfield publicly announced his resignation Monday after what he called “unfortunate controversy” surrounding his appointment, which reportedly did not involve the full board of Southwest Michigan First. The economic development agency’s board of directors accepted the resignation during a meeting Monday morning.
“It was never my intent to cause a distraction, and I apologize for any hard feelings or stress caused,” Chatfield said in a prepared statement. “There’s so much division in our country today, and it pains me to see my political past separate a welcoming community.”
He added that the Southwest Michigan First staff “didn’t deserve the negative backlash.”
Within his week on the job, the Kalamazoo City Commission unanimously voted to withdraw $10,000 in annual funding for the organization. The Kalamazoo Promise and Kalamazoo Community Foundation nonprofits each dropped their membership. And Kalamazoo Valley Community College President L. Marshall Washington resigned from Southwest Michigan First’s board.
The controversy surrounding Chatfield’s appointment centered on his opposition while he was House Speaker to expanding Michigan’s civil rights law to include protections for the LGBTQ community. Specifically, Chatfield sought to include religious exemptions under potential expansion of the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act.
“I admit, and I own, that I sought to ensure a way that people of faith, religious institutions and their non-profits would not be sued for upholding their beliefs,” Chatfield said in his resignation letter. “But unfortunately, during my tenure, I was unable to find a compromise that all parties could agree on.”
He added: “As a board of directors, you asked for my statement of beliefs regarding equality that we could release to the public. And I was already admittedly walking a fine line. It is true, that while in office, I upheld my personal convictions and those I believe held by my constituencies. And as CEO, I was more than willing to uphold the values of the company. But I knew I couldn’t within myself be honest to those around me by always agreeing on what good public policy was or what was necessarily right or wrong.”
Southwest Michigan First announced Monday that it plans to create an executive level position on diversity, equity and inclusion as well as a board committee. The organization also plans to “renew and begin again our search process” for a new CEO, and in doing so, “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.”