The Small Tennessee Town at the Center of a Big Lawsuit

ItMason, Tenn. got some good news on 2021. A Ford Motor Company facility would open in the town there in 2025.

The plant, part of Ford’s plan to lean in on electric vehicles, is projected by the company to provide around 5,500 new jobs. For many Mason residents, 72% of whom are Black as per the 2020 Census, this plant felt like a rescue plan after decades of financial hardships under their previous leaders. According to reports from the Tennessee State Comptroller’s Office, Mason has seen incidents of misconduct and theft of town funds dating back to 2007. Multiple town officials have been forced to resign in the last ten years. The city has not submitted an annual audit on time since 2001 and the Comptroller’s office has not been able to approve the city’s budget since 2019. In addition, one of the town’s major revenue sources, a private prison, recently closed.

The town has $500,000 of debt at the moment and must borrow from the water, sewer and gas funds in order to operate the city.

Mason elected a mayor in 2018 and brought on new leaders. Local leaders claim that the leadership worked to reduce debts. The prospect of receiving tax dollars through Ford jobs appeared to have helped Mason to get on the right track. Instead, Mason now finds itself at the center of a lawsuit over its very right to exist—and questions about the relationship between a small Black town and the majority-white area in which it’s located.

In March, Tennessee state comptroller Jason Mumpower sent a letter to all Mason residents saying that he believed they ought to voluntarily relinquish Mason’s charter, essentially giving up its independence as a town. “The construction of the new Ford plant in West Tennessee could offer hope to your community, but I worry that if you remain an incorporated town these opportunities will be missed. New jobs, infrastructure improvements, and economic investments are made in places with a track record of good government,” he wrote. “Mason currently has the highest municipal property tax rate in Tipton County. Your mayor answered my question about the benefits of these taxes to you. Other than the town’s 26 paid employees, it was difficult for the mayor to identify any benefit to the citizens from the town’s existence as an incorporated municipality.”

After the local government refused to make this offer, the comptroller stated that the town would have to fix its financial problems or be taken out of financial autonomy. “He gave us two choices: You give up your charter or we will move in and take over your finances,” Vice Mason Mayor Virginia Rivers has previously said.

But while Mumpower’s letter frames the loss of Mason’s charter as a benefit for residents, some in the town see the benefit accruing instead to the state: The takeover would mean that the comptroller would have significant oversight over the city’s financials and that the city would have to get approval to spend anything over $100. Under state law, Mumpower is already allowed to control Mason’s financial actions that involve taxpayer dollars.

The charter of the town would end its authority and it would become governed solely by the county. Ford Motor Company would have to reimburse the town for any tax they might need to collect. Instead, the money would be sent directly to the county. Additionally, small businesses would be able to open the plant, which would provide tax dollars for the county. Any land with an increase in value will not belong to Mason County.

Now, the town is in the middle of a legal battle against the move, after filing a lawsuit on April 1 accusing Tennessee’s comptroller of racial discrimination in his attempt to take over the town. The current Black leaders were in charge of the town. The suit alleges that Mumpower is violating the Equal Protection Clause and trying to force the town to give up its charter for the state’s financial gain. Mumpower’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

“This is a simple power grab by elected officials seeking to maximize their standings in the midst of a huge economic development opportunity in the region,” Derrick Johnson, president of the NAACP, which brought the suit on behalf of Mason along with Attorney Terry Clayton, tells TIME.

NAACP is involved as the NAACP believes that the issue transcends money. It’s also about the racial dynamics between the town and the region.

“This case involves a rural town in Tennessee that is on the verge of great financial growth. Mason is predominantly African-American and under predominantly African-American leadership,” the lawsuit says. “If Mason were to surrender its charter, Mason would essentially dissolve into the surrounding majority-white county with predominantly white leadership.”

People in the town were surprised, says Van Turner, president of the Memphis NAACP and one of the attorneys on the lawsuit, by the lengths the state comptroller’s office was willing to go to try and get control of the town. And there’s a reason why residents and groups like the NAACP might be on high alert about the implications of the state’s move: There’s a historical precedent of local, state, or federal officials across the U.S. using infrastructure demands to dismantle or control Black communities. A notable example is the negative effect that highway construction has had on Black communities and those of color in the United States. Redlining can also be considered part of this story. This discriminatory practice to withhold investments and services from minorities is called redlining. Washington Post Recent reports have highlighted another instance, where Tullahassee in Oklahoma is being decimated due to state actions. This essentially stripped the town of its financial potential.

“The county wants the financial benefits of the Ford Motor Company but this Black town is in the way,” Turner says. “The way the [comptroller]It is an unusual attempt to accomplish this. The ability to demand, force, ask and enforce the surrender of a charter-holding city or town. This is something that’s unheard of.”

Mumpower has said that this “takeover” is about finances and has denied any racial bias, but locals and community leaders believe if that was the case, then this takeover would have happened years ago when the town was really struggling. The lawsuit claims that the town has been regularly paying off its debts for nearly a full year. Mumpower has called the accusation that race plays a role in his attitude toward Mason “offensive” and “short-sighted.”

“If this was ten years ago or eight years ago or six years it would be different, but there was nothing of urgency for them to come in and try to take over. Now, the only thing that has changed is [Ford Motor company plant] is coming and the potential for great economic opportunity,” Turner says.

A settlement is currently being negotiated between the town’s leadership and the comptroller’s office, with a result expected in the coming days.

“What’s taking place in Mason is an example of what’s possible and what we need to be looking for across the country. Mason’s win is good news for democracy. We want democracy afforded to all citizens,” Johnson says.

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