Monday, December 11

What happened when a Black Tennessee town faced a state takeover

The lawsuit the mayor and Board of Aldermen of Mason filed against Tennesee’s comptroller of the treasury accused Mumpower of racial discrimination and misuse of financial power. The lawsuit also stated that the comptroller’s financial oversight plan violated the Tennessee Constitution, according to the Tennessee Observer.

“This was a power grab, not a path to support the citizens,” NAACP President Derrick Johnson said. “They were seeking to dissolve the town,” he said, as the result of Mason being put under the financial control of majority white Tipton County

Johnson said the comptroller’s actions had racist undertones, since majority-white municipalities that were in debt, like neighboring Jellico County, were not forced to face the same ultimatum, reflecting the state’s history of targeting Black leadership.

For Mason, prior to the lawsuit, Johnson said, “democracy was not working.”

Following the settlement, now the town is required to pay back approximately $5,000 per month, which Anthony Ashton, senior associate general counsel of the NAACP, said is a more manageable payment plan compared to the $22,000 the comptroller previously required. And instead of needing approval for every expense over $100 each time it takes place, the spending threshold increased to $1,000 and is approved monthly.

The town also managed to pay off a portion of its almost $600,000 debt, lowering it to approximately $248,000, which will be paid off over four years.

“The debt was incurred with a previous administration,” Ashton said. “This administration was actively paying it down and rapidly paying it down, and yet it was this administration that received a target from the comptroller of ‘give up your charter.” The corrective action plan was “so strict and overwhelming” that it would “ruin the town financially,” he added.

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Andrea Morales for NBC News

In a statement in March, Ford acknowledged the tensions but said that the situation was between the state and Mason and denied any involvement. Rivers said representatives from Ford met with her administration de ella in April to hear Mason’s side of the story, but did not offer any assistance to help.

“We’ve had several conversations with Mason officials to ensure they are positioned to benefit from the economic growth we are bringing to the area, and we’ll continue to engage with Mason and other West Tennessee communities to help them prepare for potential jobs and investments for their residents,” Ford said in a statement shared with NBC News in June. “Ford is committed to being a good neighbor and providing equitable opportunities.”

During the conflict, many people on social media also called for action, including one Virginia resident, identified as KD, who started a series of hashtags, petitions and fundraisers on behalf of Mason.

“They need a lot of economic substance down there — where the money would directly benefit the residents of Mason because they’re the people who are suffering the most,” said KD, who requested to remain anonymous due to safety concerns. “So we were able to put that GoFundMe page together strictly for that purpose.”

Since then, KD’s efforts have garnered almost $18,000 in donations from more than 325 supporters around the nation. KD is currently in the process of withdrawing the funds and plans to give Mason the money in the form of a cashier’s check, they said.

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While this new deal may seem like a win for the town, not everyone is rejoicing. Rivers said that if Mason Mayor Emmit Gooden had not signed off on dropping the lawsuit against the comptroller, the town’s repayment terms would have not changed. She also said that the comptroller’s financial oversight will cease if the town’s budget for 2023 is approved by August.

“I am not totally satisfied but it’s better than what we had,” she said.

Mumpower released an updated corrective action plan in May with terms of agreement, one requiring the town to maintain regular contact with the comptroller’s office or it will be considered in violation of the plan.

“Mason’s agreement to a new corrective action plan is a significant step in restoring the town’s financial health,” Mumpower said in a statement released in May. “By agreeing to change its practices and work with our Office, Mason will operate on a balanced budget, work toward correcting its audit findings, and eliminate improper borrowing. Most importantly, if Mason follows this plan, taxpayers can know their leaders are being good stewards of their money.”

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