With the City of Saint Joseph’s primaries approaching this Tuesday, August 3, 2021, the OutCenter of Southwest Michigan sent out a questionnaire to the 9 candidates running for the Saint Joseph City Commission. Those candidates include one incumbent, Michele Binkley, as well as eight challengers, Thomas Dean Jennings, Chris Lannert, Ben Rimes, Michael Sarola, Brook Thomas, Elizabeth (Bits) Thomas, Tess Ulrey, and Marc Williams. Each candidate was emailed three times and called once regarding completing the questionnaire, or their campaigns were messaged directly on their websites or other social media. 

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In the interest of transparency and accountability in governance, we are publishing the results prior to the election in order to help educate the voting public about the position of all candidates regarding the non-discrimination ordinance. Also in the interest of transparency, it is important to note that the candidate Brook Thomas is the current Board Chair of the OutCenter of Southwest Michigan, her answers were recorded the same as all others. 

From protecting and supporting LGBTQ public employees to addressing the varied needs of LGBTQ+ community members and their families, city officials play a powerful role in advancing inclusive reforms and setting a model for other jurisdictions to follow in service of equality and civil rights.

Chris Lannert did not return the questionnaire. Candidate responses are in alphabetical order.

The Questions and Responses:

1) Understanding that LGBTQ+ Michiganders residing in the City of Saint Joseph were largely unprotected from discrimination, and understanding that the City Commission moved unanimously in March 2019 to adopt a non-discrimination ordinance providing equal protections to LGBTQ+ individuals residing, working, and/or vacationing in the City of Saint Joseph – joining 46 other Michigan cities and towns, and understanding that studies have shown such ordinances benefit the cities and towns that enact them economically, et al., and understanding the City Commission followed protocol to enact said ordinance, would you, if elected to the Saint Joseph City Commission in 2021, support this ordinance, as is, without moving to amend provisions in ways that would erode protections from discrimination and lessen support for equality of LGBTQ+ residents, employees, and visitors of the City of Saint Joseph?

Michele Binkley: Yes

Thomas Jennings: Yes

Ben Rimes: Yes

Michael Sarola: No answer

Brook Thomas: Yes

Elizabeth Bits Thomas: Yes

Tess Ulrey: Yes

Marc Williams: Yes

2) One way local governments can support the LGBTQ+ community is to provide their own employees and government-funded organizations with LGBTQ+ related training opportunities. This is an important way for local leaders to improve the delivery of services to LGBTQ+ residents in their community. If elected to the city commission, would you promote or mandate training that addresses the diverse needs of LGBTQ+ communities, and hiring local experts to conduct such training?

Michele Binkley: Yes

Thomas Jennings: Yes

Ben Rimes: Yes

Michael Sarola: No answer

Brook Thomas: Yes

Elizabeth Bits Thomas: Yes

Tess Ulrey: Yes

Marc Williams: Yes

3) Creating inclusive practices within the workings of local government can greatly address the needs and gaps faced by LGBTQ+ residents. If elected to the city commission, would you support adopting an ordinance that requires a clause in all contracts with the city that prohibits contractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression?

Michele Binkley: Yes

Thomas Jennings: Yes

Ben Rimes: No answer

Michael Sarola: No answer

Brook Thomas: Yes

Elizabeth Bits Thomas: No answer

Tess Ulrey: Yes

Marc Williams: Yes

4) If elected to the city commission, would you support incentive programs aimed at rewarding minority-owned businesses (including LGBTQ+ business owners) to operate in the city?

Michele Binkley: No answer

Thomas Jennings: Yes

Ben Rimes: Yes

Michael Sarola: No answer

Brook Thomas: Yes

Elizabeth Bits Thomas: No answer

Tess Ulrey: Yes

Marc Williams: No

5) If elected to the city commission, would you support the appointment of an LGBTQ+ liaison within the city commission who could allow input and recommendations from LGBTQ+ residents to be shared directly with the city leaders?

Michele Binkley: Yes

Thomas Jennings: Yes

Ben Rimes: No answer

Michael Sarola: No answer

Brook Thomas: Yes

Elizabeth Bits Thomas: Yes

Tess Ulrey: Yes

Marc Williams: No

NOTES FROM THE CANDIDATES

Michele Binkley: “I support inclusion for all residents but I don’t have enough information about incentives or policies to answer the incentive question.”

Thomas Jennings: “Regarding your question about an incentive program, we must take this a step further to help ALL business owners since such an incentive program would have to be funded with the property taxes collected from ALL property owners in the city and would impact ALL residents and businesses.

Regarding your question about an LGBTQ+ liaison, the City Commission is already made up of liaisons. As the City Commissioners are voted in by the residents, the Commissioners are already liaisons for and represent the needs of the city’s residents.

Appointing a separate liaison specifically for LGBTQ+, would mean elevating one specific group above and beyond all the other residents. We must treat EVERY race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy, transgender status, and sexual orientation), national origin, age, disability and/or genetic information the same / equally; otherwise it would be discriminatory. ALL ARE EQUAL UNDER THE LAW.”

Ben Rimes: “When considering the inclusion of non-discrimination clauses for city vendors and contracts, I would first want to fully explore the existing non-discrimination ordinance to ensure that it is being effectively and broadly implemented. As someone responsible for ensuring compliance with Title IX non-discrimination in my previous role, I understand the importance of making sure existing ordinances and policies are enforced.

I would be open to exploring a partnership between the city and the OutCenter to provide educational opportunities and events to both city staff and residents as a way to increase input from the LGBTQ+ residents.”

Michael Sarola: “I believe in equal treatment and opportunity for all. I don’t believe in the discrimination of any person or group, based on race, religion, color, national origin, ancestry, physical disability, mental disability, medical condition, marital status, sex or sexual orientation. In the event I did not cover ALL, the intent in the expression of my position is captured in the opening line of this reply: ‘I believe in equal treatment and opportunity for ALL,’ and will work to assure this happens.

I am not in favor of a special liaison with any specific group, for the purpose of communication with the City Commission. If I am elected to the City Commission, I will represent ALL residents and will listen, hear and consider all ideas and concerns offered. I would expect the entire Commission to do the same.

I am not in favor of adding additional costs or personnel to the City, or mandate to private businesses, requiring training or the hiring of consultants to address diverse needs of any specific segment alone, of our population. With all budgets strained after combating Covid-19 for the last 18 months, tax payers and businesses need to be extremely prudent and focused with financial resources. As a City Commissioner, I would lead by example in applying fair and equal treatment to all, accepting and expecting no less from all of SJ City Government.

I am not in favor of offering advantage in award of any city contracts to one specific group over another. I am in favor of awarding city contracts based solely on the merit and value represented in each specific proposal, equally weighted, without prejudice.

I ask my response to the OutCenter’s Candidate Questionnaire be published, as I submitted. I am not in favor of “yes or no” questions, as they do not and cannot provide the full answers voters deserve. You are welcome to include this final paragraph as to my reasoning for submitting answers in this format. If you are unwilling to publish my submission, as is, that will be your choice, not mine.”

Brook Thomas: “It’s time for Saint Joseph to become a city for ALL, and I am the best candidate to promote such diversity and inclusion in our community!”

Elizabeth Bits Thomas: “I fully support the City of St. Joseph’s Non-Discrimination Ordinance, particularly with its inclusion of equal protections to LGBTQ+. As City Commissioner, I will be a passionate advocate for all of our residents and will be an ally to our LGBTQ+ community.”

Tess Ulrey: “I absolutely support the ordinances and efforts that move our community in an equitable and safe direction for LQBTQUIA+ residents, visitors, employees and entrepreneurs. 

I believe that our city commission needs to represent the voices that live and work in our community, and my responsibility as a commissioner is to uplift and center the voices and lived experiences of the LGBTQIA+, BIPOC, and other marginalized communities. While saying “yes, we love everyone” sounds fine, it’s not enough. As a community, we need to actively work on our educational opportunities, policies, and intentions that truly encourage diversity, equity, and inclusion. I look forward to supporting the mission and great work of the OutCenter as a St. Joseph City Commissioner!”

Marc Williams: “I’m all for LGBTQ+ equality, but not for special treatment over other groups or individuals.”


Be an educated voter!

The OutCenter, no matter the outcome of this election, continues to educate others up to and including candidates and elected officials. We need Southwest Michigan to be our home, too.

And know that the OutCenter remains steadfast in our efforts to bring people together in all our diversity, create communities that care about everyone equally, and to ensure that Southwest Michigan is a safe place for the more than 10,000 LGBTQ+ people that call it home.

To view a PDF of the candidates’ poll responses, see below.

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