It may have been just an hour of cookies and punch, but a recent reception sponsored by East Ridge city officials for a congressional candidate is drawing questions about how local taxpayer money may be used.
About 25 East Ridge employees milled in the lobby of East Ridge's City Hall on July 13, shaking hands and making small talk with Scottie Mayfield, a Republican running for Tennessee's 3rd District seat.
The reception took place while employees were on the clock, and about $80 was spent on snacks for the employees.
City Manager Tim Gobble insisted that the reception was not meant to be an endorsement and was an attempt to be "hospitable," but other city leaders have said it was an inappropriate use of city funds.
"It just looks bad," said Councilman Jim Bethune, who attended the event but said flatly he is not a Mayfield supporter. "I don't think he meant it as an endorsement, but you start to think about whether this is really our place, as a city, to do that."
The event stemmed from conversations Gobble said he had with Mayfield several weeks ago, when the city manager invited the candidate to stop by City Hall to meet employees. Other local candidates have stopped by City Hall to glad-hand with residents, but none have been afforded a formal reception.
"I decided on my own to have a few refreshments like we did when [U.S. Rep.] Chuck Fleischmann came by several months ago because this is a high-level office," said Gobble, who ran for the seat against Fleischmann in 2010. "I was trying to be courteous and hospitable. ... I may not have completely thought it through."
Mayfield is one of the candidates running against Fleischmann in the Republican primary, along with Weston Wamp and Ron Bhalla. Mayfield's campaign manager, Bo Patten, helped manage Gobble's campaign in the 2010 race.
Representatives with Mayfield's campaign did not respond to questions for comment on the event.
Jordan Powell, a spokesman for Fleischmann, confirmed East Ridge officials hosted a meeting with the congressman "about a year ago" at City Hall. Powell said he could not recall the nature of Fleischmann's meeting, but said it wasn't a campaign event like Mayfield's. He declined further comment.
While Gobble assured the "same opportunity" would be provided to other congressional candidates, 3rd District hopefuls across the political spectrum said they've never heard from the city manager, councilmen or anyone else representing East Ridge government.
Ooltewah Democrat Bill Taylor said he didn't even realize the Mayfield event occurred until a reporter contacted him about it Tuesday. He said he was disappointed, adding that he's depending on "every event I can find" for political success.
"I haven't heard one peep out of city of East Ridge," Taylor said, "and I'm pretty easy to reach."
Wamp, the 25-year-old Republican son of East Ridge native and former U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, also said he and his campaign "never heard a thing" from anyone at the city.
Bethune said it is "only fair" for the city to offer to hold receptions for other candidates at this point, but said the city shouldn't have to use part of its budget on others' political campaigns, no matter how small.
There are state and local guidelines that set out safeguards against state employees mixing state business with political activity.
John Allyn, attorney for the Tennessee Board of Ethics, said he could not weigh in on the propriety of the matter because the state agency does not have jurisdiction over municipalities such as East Ridge.
"It does bring up good questions, though," Allyn said.
He said a state law, known as the Little Hatch Act, forbids state employees from using state-owned property for campaign advertising or activities.
That statute does not apply to municipal government, but East Ridge's own ethics code states that officials and employees cannot "authorize the use of municipal time facilities, equipment, or supplies for private gain or advantage to any private person or entity," unless the council approves it.
John Anderson, East Ridge's attorney, holds the role of being the city's ethics officer. Though he was included in the invitation to the Mayfield event, he did not attend.
He did not respond to phone and email messages Tuesday seeking comment about the event.
Contact staff writer Kate Harrison at email@example.com or 423-757-6673. Contact staff writer Chris Carroll at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Chris Carroll covers federal politics for the Times Free Press. A Chattanooga native, he went to Red Bank High School and graduated with honors from East Tennessee State University. Chris investigated violent crime, municipal government and hospitals before taking the political beat. For tornado coverage, he and Pam Sohn won a first-place Tennessee Associated Press Managing Editors deadline reporting award. In 2010, Chris won the Golden Press Card Award of Merit and another deadline reporting ...