8th District dispute: Lambert defends campaign contributions from developers; Boyd says they 'stink'

Mayor Brent Lambert participates in an East Ridge City Council meeting on Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015, in East Ridge, Tenn.

As candidate questions go, the last one was a doozy.

The local Pachyderm Club had billed its Monday luncheon meeting as a "debate" between 8th District Hamilton County Commission candidates Tim Boyd, the incumbent, and challenger Brent Lambert.

photo Hamilton County Commissioner Tim Boyd speaks about his plan to reallocate $4 million from the county budget during a meeting with the Times Free Press editorial board on Wednesday, March 29, 2017, in Chattanooga, Tenn.
photo Mayor Brent Lambert participates in an East Ridge City Council meeting on Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015, in East Ridge, Tenn.

Both are seeking the Republican nomination in the May 1 primary. No Democrat is seeking the seat.

Instead of a debate, the format was that each candidate would speak for a few minutes, then take audience questions written on slips of paper and read by moderator Rex Sparks.

Lambert won the coin toss and went first. Born and raised in East Ridge, he's finishing his second term as mayor and is the president and CEO of the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum. Lambert touted the city's rapid growth and development around Bass Pro Shops and Exit 1, which he called "the front door for Hamilton County and the entire Chattanooga area," and took several shots at Boyd over his "very sour relationship" with various other political figures in and out of county government.

His audience questions were about school funding and safety, the payday loan industry in East Ridge, and the perennial, why should people vote for him?

Boyd, also an East Ridge native, is an engineer with Aquafil in Cartersville, Ga., and is seeking his third term on the panel. In the 2014 primary, a three-way race, Boyd won with 42 percent of the vote to Lambert's 19.3 percent. Longtime former commissioner Curtis Adams was the third candidate.

Boyd talked about his focus on good government, transparency and accountability, noting his campaign to improve the Water and Wastewater Treatment Authority and his investigation of the Convention and Visitors Bureau, which led to multiple findings by state auditors.

His audience questions were on school safety, funding county government and working with the school board.

Then this one: "Why did you threaten Mayor Lambert, his family and the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum to get Mayor Lambert to withdraw from the 8th District County Commission race?"

Well, Boyd responded, "I wasn't going to bring it up," but he said he asked Lambert to pull out of the race after learning Lambert had received $5,000 in political contributions, including $3,000 from Exit 1 developers, just days after the East Ridge town council approved more than $4 million in bonds for the project and at a time when Lambert didn't have a campaign going on.

"I didn't threaten him," Boyd said at the meeting. "I asked him because I felt like the information that was going to be disclosed may not be good for him, his family, his political aspirations or the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum."

Lambert's financial disclosures show he used the money to repay part of a $9,000 loan to himself left over from his mayoral campaign.

"Ladies and gentlemen, that just don't pass the smell test to me," Boyd said. "That creates cynicism from the public on what politicians are doing in their duty as an elected official. I don't think that's good government, I don't think that's good [as an] elected official, I don't think anything about that is good."

In an interview Monday with the Times Free Press, Boyd called the question "a total set-up out of his camp."

He added, "There's nothing illegal about what he did, but it just stinks to high heaven."

In a separate interview, Lambert would not confirm the question was planted but said "it was needed, just to basically get that information out there."

He said Boyd had threatened "to release damaging information on me if I did not withdraw."

"I would call it reprehensible, because of the threats that have been made to me, to my family, my employers, my campaign, essentially but my faith, everything that I hold dear. To me, it is far beyond sleazy politics. It's vulgar, it's reprehensible."

Lambert said he had "reached out to various couples and wanted to have a fundraiser, kind of looking toward the end of the year, 2018 was an election year and I had a hole from the previous campaign. I reached out to some folks and sought contributions for the mayoral campaign."

John Healy, Matt Wood and Ethan Wood, who are involved in the Exit 1 project, gave $1,000 apiece, as did property owners Terry Watts and Emerson Russell.

He said the contributions were unrelated to the bond issue and added that the East Ridge council votes "all the time" on issues related to Exit 1.

"The bond issue was not for anyone who provided a contribution to my campaign, it was for the Exit 1 project which for safety reasons and many other reasons needed to be done."

Contact staff writer Judy Walton at jwalton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6416.