The Hamilton County Democratic Party said Monday that it "technically" ran afoul of its open meetings policy five hours after putting out a statement that said it followed the rules.
At a board meeting last week, party Chairman Paul Smith and party Treasurer Stephen Harper implored board members to keep secret the session that followed, with Smith at one point saying, "I'm glad the press wasn't here" so the party could discuss sensitive matters and avoid "a big brouhaha."
Smith prohibited the media from covering the meeting, describing it as "confidential" to a Chattanooga Times Free Press reporter.
But board member Rita Fehring and an audio recording confirmed Smith never adjourned the regular meeting before entering into a private "executive session," directly violating a bylaw that promotes transparency at all levels, Tennessee Democratic Party officials said.
"The Democratic Party -- nationally, statewide and locally -- encourages and requires open meetings so people and press have access to what is going on," said Gerard Stranch, general counsel for the state party.
The Times Free Press obtained a recording of the meeting.
At the meeting it emerged for the first time that City Council candidate Moses Freeman has been paying the local Democrats' rent for party headquarters at 841 E. Main St.
A longtime Democratic activist, Freeman is running against another self-identified Democrat, City Councilman Andrae McGary, in District 8.
The March city elections are nonpartisan, but local Democratic officials historically have taken pains to avoid publicly showing favoritism toward two Democrats running for the same office.
Last week's board meeting was conducted at the Main Street headquarters. A large Freeman campaign sign swung over the building's exterior.
Asked at the meeting why the sign was there, Smith said he made arrangements with Freeman "in order to make some money out of this building," according to the audio recording.
"Moses wanted to come and rent the offices we were essentially not using," Smith told board members at the meeting. "And we took the Democratic Party sign down and the only option that we had was to use this building and he would pay the rent two months to use the building," according to the recording.
Last week McGary said he didn't know about the rental agreement, describing it as "hilarious" and potentially corrupt.
The Times Free Press published a story about the arrangement Saturday.
In response Monday, the Hamilton County Democratic Party said it "is renting its headquarters premises month-to-month and does not have a lease," noting that "Mr. Freeman is subletting the space from the building's owner."
The statement did not mention what Smith told board members last week -- that the county party is paying "the water and the lights ... and Internet" at the same time Freeman is renting.
On Monday, Smith had a different answer about helping with building expenses.
"He is renting the building ... and to my knowledge ... that's paying for all the use of everything for that facility," Smith said. "If there's anything else, I'm unaware of it."
In its statement, the Hamilton County Democratic Party said "no official HCDP meetings will be held in this space until after the Mar. 5 elections" in order "to reinforce ... impartiality."
On its website Monday night, the party listed 841 E. Main St. as its headquarters.
According to the Democratic National Committee 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."
In a statement sent Monday at 2 p.m., Smith and Harper said, "We have been advised that indeed we can conduct such a [board] meeting without it being open to the press."
Both men said their statement was informed by conversations with "legal experts and a member of the Democratic National Committee."
The local party's public relations specialist voluntarily provided the cellphone number and name of the Democratic National Committee member -- Bill Owen, a former state senator -- and encouraged the Times Free Press to contact him.
In an interview, Owen said the party's statement was wrong, adding that Smith should have followed several steps:
• Open a public board meeting.
• Pass a motion to enter into private executive strategy session.
• Adjourn the public meeting.
• Commence the private strategy session.
• Adjourn the private strategy session.
• Reopen the public meeting.
"He did not follow that exact procedure," Owen said. "Should he have done that? Yes."
An hour after the newspaper contacted Owen, the Hamilton County Democratic Party issued a second statement. It said: " ... technically ... we should have formally adjourned the board meeting and resumed as an executive session."
"Future meetings will be clearly announced as either open board meetings or executive strategy sessions, which will be closed to all press," the second statement said.
Contact staff writer Chris Carroll at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6610.