Hamilton County Democratic Party Chairman Paul Smith barred reporters from attending the party's monthly board meeting Thursday, violating a national bylaw that promotes transparency.
The Chattanooga Times Free Press later obtained a recording of the meeting at which members criticized Smith for endorsing mayoral candidate Andy Berke without board approval. And it emerged that District 8 City Council candidate Moses Freeman has been paying rent for the Democratic headquarters -- about $675 per month, he said in an interview -- in exchange for advertising space.
A large Freeman campaign banner now hangs over the local headquarters at 841 E. Main St. despite another self-identified Democrat's presence in the race. City Councilman Andrae McGary is fighting for the same nonpartisan seat. Other Freeman posters have been spotted in the windows.
The party conducted Thursday's meeting in the same space. Referring to Freeman Thursday night, Smith told the board: "I think it's better that we can get several hundred dollars out of the building here. ... He's willing to pay the rent."
The board never approved the arrangement, which began earlier this month. McGary said he didn't know about it until Friday.
"That's hilarious," he said. "If this is the sort of deal Mr. Freeman does, citizens should ask if these deals are the ones he'd strike if elected."
Freeman said he had "no comment on anything Andraé says."
Smith, who once said "our books are always open," told a Times Free Press reporter to leave Thursday's board meeting, calling it "private." In a subsequent phone call that evening, Smith said the board intended to discuss "confidential" matters.
Tennessee Democratic Party Chairman Chip Forrester said Smith should have allowed the public to attend. In the past, reporters have covered official board meetings without incident. In an interview Friday, Smith described the meeting as "official."
Forrester said the Democratic National Committee ultimately governs county parties and considers them subsidiaries. According to the national charter, "All meetings of the Democratic National Committee, the Executive Committee, and all other official Party committees, commissions and bodies shall be open to the public."
"When Paul conducted business," Forrester said, "he should have opened it up."
After the reporter left, Smith and other officers implored board members to keep secret the session that followed.
"I hope nobody is sending out stuff to be broadcast out and we keep what we said in here in the board meeting and that we discuss it here," Smith told the board.
Later, party treasurer Stephen Harper asked: "Is there someone who invited the press here tonight? Because I don't feel that any board member has the right to invite the press to a meeting."
In an interview Friday, Freeman said he approached Harper -- the brother of the building owner -- to sublease from the Democrats what he called "the best space in the city for my district."
Harper said the rental agreement shows no favoritism toward Freeman, adding the county party plans no official endorsement in District 8. Asked if he would allow McGary to use party headquarters to campaign against Freeman, Harper wouldn't say.
"That is a hypothetical about something that hasn't happened," he said.
Also at the meeting, board members Charlie Steinhice and former Hamilton County Commissioner John Allen Brooks expressed reservations about Smith endorsing Berke without the board's blessing. Berke is a former Democratic state senator. In an interview Friday, Steinhice said Smith should consult the board before speaking for the entire party.
"That could set a dangerous precedent," Steinhice said.
It's not the first insurrection against Smith, whose stature took a hit last year when he printed what some board members saw as a sexist joke on a board meeting agenda.
Today the Hamilton County Republican Party will hold officer elections. The local GOP has opened the meeting to the media after shutting out reporters two years ago.