Mason Will Continue Its Legal Fight Against Tennessee Comptroller

April 18, 2022

Attorneys for the Town of Mason said Friday they will continue to pursue a lawsuit against the Tennessee Comptroller over plans to take financial control of the majority Black, west Tennessee community located five miles from the site of a future $5.6 billion Ford Motor Company plant.

“The Town of Mason plans continuing to litigate this matter until a satisfactory conclusion is reached which preserves the sovereignty of its elected leadership and complies with all laws and regulations regarding its finances,” said Van Turner, an attorney representing Mason who also serves as a Shelby County Commissioner and the president of the Memphis NAACP chapter.

On Thursday, Davidson County Chancery Court Judge Anne Martin denied Mason’s request to issue a preliminary injunction that would put a temporary halt to the state’s financial takeover. Martin noted that under Tennessee law the Comptroller has “broad authority” over local government operations.

Martin did not rule on allegations made by Mason’s leaders that the Comptroller’s actions were discriminatory and differed from the state’s approach to other, majority white local governments that have experienced financial problems. Martin, a Democrat, said she had not been presented with enough evidence to rule on the allegations of racial discrimination.

Attorneys for Mason have noted that the Comptroller first took the unprecedented step of asking Mason officials to relinquish the town’s charter, which would have subsumed the majority Black and Democrat town under the leadership of the majority White and Republican Tipton County — just ahead of an expected economic transformation of the region accompanying Ford’s investment.

After Mason’s leaders refused to cede their charter, Comptroller Jason Mumpower formally took control of Mason’s finances on April 4, citing a long history of financial mismanagement. His office imposed a corrective action plan (CAP) requiring town officials to seek approval for any expenditure of $100 or more.

The corrective action plan includes a $9,500 monthly repayment schedule to pay down debt. Mason’s elected leaders have said that the conditions effectively take control of nearly every decision they make. About 90% of routine town expenditure are $100 or more and the $9,500 monthly debt repayment plan means payroll and other basic functions of town government could suffer, they said.

‘The Court recognizes the harsh realities of the 2022 CAP imposed upon an administration that did not contribute to the financial burden of the Town and the strain it places on leadership to govern, but the Court must also take into account the state’s interest in moving the Town towards financial stability and a balanced budget,” Davidson County Chancellor Anne Martin wrote in a 23-page decision issued late Thursday.

The town’s legal representation has thus far been provided by the NAACP Legal Education and Defense Fund, which said Friday it will continue to represent Mason’s elected leaders at no cost to the town’s taxpayers. The initial lawsuit, filed April 1, alleged that the Comptroller’s actions exceeded his authority and violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

An amended lawsuit, filed last week, added Emmitt Gooden, Mason’s mayor, as an individual plaintiff and Jason Mumpower, as an individual defendant. The original lawsuit included them only in their official capacities. The amended lawsuit, which was not addressed by Martin, is intended to overcome legal barriers to municipalities suing for Fourteenth Amendment protections.

“The NAACP will continue supporting the Town of Mason in its lawsuit against the Comptroller and will continue developing a record in preparation for when this matter is back in court again,” Turner’s statement said.

Until 2016, the majority Black town of under 1,500 residents was led for more than a century almost entirely by white elected officials. Those officials resigned en masse when allegations of misappropriation of funds came to light. Since then, Mason has elected only Black mayors; its vice mayor is Black, and its Board of Aldermen is majority Black.

The Comptroller and Mason officials have offered divergent assessments of how Mason’s more recent leadership has managed finances.

What is undisputed is that officials, both preceding and after 2016, improperly transferred utility payments into the town’s general fund, which is contrary to Tennessee law.

Court records show the town’s debt to its utility operations stood at about $290,000 in the 2018 fiscal year then rose to about $700,000 by 2021. That debt now stands at approximately $260,000, a result of Mason officials paying down debt over at least a year’s period and a recent decision to steer pandemic-era federal funding pay down the debt.

“We remind everyone that the fiscal mismanagement in the Town of Mason occurred approximately ten (10) years ago under different leadership,” Turner’s statement said. “This current leadership has not continued to mismanage the Town’s finances but instead has worked to correct the mistakes that were previously made.”

Tennessee Lookout is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit network of state government news sites supported by grants and a coalition of donors.

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