Former Michigan Speaker of the House Lee Chatfield resigned from his job as CEO of Southwest Michigan First, just 11 days after his hire.  The board of the economic development organization accepted the resignation and indicated that they may have rushed to replace former CEO Ron Kitchens.

In a release, managing partner Heather Baker said, “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.”

Chatfield, a conservative Republican, and Christian had come under fire by members of the Kalamazoo City Commission and even from SW Michigan First Board members, who thought he didn’t do enough to support amendments to the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act.

Baker said in the release that the board has always supported that.  “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.”

Some critics of Southwest Michigan First contend that Chatfield wasn’t a bad choice, but that the board didn’t handle the hire as well as they should have.  The press release indicates that the board agrees with that criticism.

“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.”

The organization will be conducting a new search for a CEO, but that won’t be the first step.  “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.”

In resigning, Chatfield said that the board “deserved someone with a blank political slate that won’t bring about the division that I’ve unfortunately caused.”

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