Majority Black Tennessee Town Reaches Agreement To Avoid State Takeover

Mason officials accused the state of racial bias in its power grab ahead of a Ford Motor plant opening nearby.

A controversial lawsuit was resolved on May 4 that pitted the majority-Black town of Mason, Tenn. and the NAACP against the Tennessee Comptroller's Office. Its plaintiffs claimed that control of the town was being wrested from the hands of its government by the state and corporate interests.

Located about 40 miles northeast of Memphis, Mason accused the state comptroller’s office of violating the Equal Protection Clause in an allegedly overzealous attempt to take control of the town’s finances, according to CNN. Town officials said race played a role in the comptroller going beyond what federal and state laws allow.

“They had no right to take over Mason, so we took them to court and we won. Similar injustices are happening all across the country, and the NAACP knows all too well that if we don't put out small fires across America, they quickly become wildfires. This settlement is a significant victory for all those who believe in justice and fairness," NAACP General Counsel Janette McCarthy Wallace said in a statement announcing the settlement.

CNN reports that the comptroller’s office has denied that racial bias motivated its dealings with Mason, which has a population of fewer than 1,500 residents, of whom 72 percent are Black.

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The dispute was at an impasse in March when the state comptroller’s office warned Mason officials that it would take control of the town’s finances if the town failed to fix the problems. Mason would have also to surrender its town charter and submit to restructuring if it couldn’t pay off its debts. Mason had not submitted an annual audit on time since 2001.

Mayor Emmit Gooden noted that the majority-white town of Jellico, Tenn., which he said had worse financial issues, didn’t receive the same ultimatum from state officials. Instead, the comptroller’s office worked with Jellico to repair its financial woes.

"I definitely think race plays a factor in the comptroller's actions because we're the only city they have come in to force the finances and demand our charter," Vice Mayor Virginia Rivers said. "They didn't come in and offer us any assistance like they did with the city of Jellico."

Mason officials suspected that the state’s hardline also stemmed from the $5.8 billion Ford Motor Company plant that’s expected to open in 2025 and located just 10 miles from Mason. If Mason surrendered its town charter, Tipton County would receive revenues from the project.

Tennessee Comptroller Jason Mumpower has said his concern is that Mason would “be left out” of economic benefits from the project if it doesn’t pay off its debts, according to CNN. He told the station that the new agreement is a “significant step in restoring the town’s financial health.”

Among other things, the agreement will allow Mason officials to have a certified public accountant or law firm assist with its audit backlog and future audits, as well as help the town balance its budget. And Mason will maintain its charter.

"This is a victory for the town of Mason and beyond. The state government attempted to take over a Black town, and they miserably failed,” Wallace said.

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