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Kalamazoo County might be next to break with group over ex-House speaker's hire

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

The Kalamazoo County Board of Commissioners will consider halting funding for Southwest Michigan First after the economic development group hired former state House Speaker Lee Chatfield as its new CEO.

On Monday, the Kalamazoo City Commission voted to break ties with the organization over Chatfield's past opposition to civil rights protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Michigan residents. The city commission had paid Southwest Michigan First about $10,000 a year. The county pays the group about $75,000 a year.

Tracy Hall, the chairwoman of the county board and a Democrat, said the county-level discussions will begin at a Tuesday night meeting, but because of procedural rules, a vote might not take place for two weeks.

New Speaker of the House Lee Chatfield R-Levering, speaks to the media in Lansing in this Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019 file photo.

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"In my mind, it’s definitely on the table," said Hall, who is openly gay, about the possibility of cutting ties with Southwest Michigan First over Chatfield's hire.

Southwest Michigan First announced Thursday that its new CEO will be Chatfield, a 32-year-old Republican from Northern Michigan who left office because of term limits at the end of 2020.

Southwest Michigan First is "an organization of privately funded economic development advisers who act as the catalyst for economic growth across the seven counties of Berrien, Branch, Calhoun, Cass, Kalamazoo, St. Joseph and Van Buren," according to a press release.

Kalamazoo County is the largest county in the region.

"My goal in this position is to serve this community and ensure there are good paying jobs available for all," Chatfield said Monday. "I'm eager to work with anyone and everyone to help make that happen. I am optimistic that healthy partnerships can be formed to move this region forward."

After the Kalamazoo City Commission's vote Monday, Southwest Michigan First issued a Tuesday statement that said it had updated its official handbook to "more clearly articulate that we prohibit discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation in our hiring process."

"We have listened. We have heard. And now, we are taking action," the statement said.

Erin Knott, a Kalamazoo city commissioner and director of Equality Michigan, said she appreciated the statement from Southwest Michigan First. But Knott continued to call on the group's leaders, including Chatfield, to demand that the GOP-controlled Legislature expand the state's civil rights law to include protections for sexual orientation and gender identity and expression "without a carve-out or exemption of any kind."

As a legislator, Chatfield, who served from 2015-2020, opposed such a proposal. In 2019, while he was speaker, Chatfield said in a taping of “Off the Record” on WKAR-TV that he didn’t plan to hold a vote during the term on any gay rights legislation.

"I do not believe we can pass this law while still protecting religious freedom," Chatfield said on the TV show. "You’ve seen these laws passed in other states where what happens, in my opinion, is a reverse discrimination against those who have religious beliefs."

There's been so much chatter about Chatfield's hire that the Kalamazoo County Board of Commissioners must also discuss it, Hall said Tuesday afternoon.

"Mr. Chatfield does not represent the values that I have come to know of the city of Kalamazoo, certainly the community and the county," she said.

Hall said she plans to personally meet with Chatfield.

Southwest Michigan First's previous CEO, Ron Kitchens, made $720,814 in total compensation in 2018, according to a federal tax filing.

Staff Writer Mark Hicks contributed.

cmauger@detroitnews.com