The Tennessee state comptroller is taking over the finances of the small, majority-Black town of Mason, in a move that has the state NAACP chapter “deeply concerned.”
Last week, Republican Comptroller Jason Mumpower, who is white, announced that his office would be overseeing the town’s budget, citing its authority under a state code, due to the town being “poorly managed.” The town owes some $600,000 back to its water and sewer fund.
This means the comptroller’s office will have the power to approve or block any spending of $100 or more by the town, reported the Tennessee Lookout.
Mason’s vice mayor, Virginia Rivers, who is Black, told the news outlet this was “akin to a hostile takeover.”
The comptroller’s decision comes after he posted a public letter earlier this month warning the town that it should “relinquish its charter” — which would place it under the governance of the county, which is majority white and Republican — or face financial takeover.
The town’s leaders voted against giving up its charter.
The majority-Black town has some 1,300 homes, and its residents include descendants of enslaved people. Its current leadership is majority Black and Democratic, after having been led by white officials for over a century up until 2015.
Tennessee NAACP President Gloria Sweet-Love told HuffPost on Tuesday that the timing of the financial seizure of the town “smells like day-old catfish,” pointing to the fact that there was clear fraud and mismanagement for years under previous white, Republican administrations, and the comptroller didn’t take over then.
She and others have pointed out that a Ford manufacturing plant is slated to open nearby in 2025, which could bring a slew of jobs and an increased tax base to town.
“It seems mighty strange to us … all of sudden when the majority of elected officials are Black and Ford Motor Company is going to be within 4.5 miles of this little city that could begin to see an increase in revenue, all of a sudden they want to take over,” Sweet-Love said.
She said the civil rights organization is “deeply concerned” and has involved national headquarters and its general counsel, and plans to “fight this any way we can.”
“We think it’s bullying, it’s far-right-wing bullying,” she added. “We think it’s wrong.”
‘This is a very concerning issue for the NAACP. The mayor is Black. The majority there are African-Americans. They are, in fact, going to be controlled by state officials who do not hold their values,’ – Van Turner, Memphis chapter president.https://t.co/Xc7nLPvtiy @TNLookout
— Anita Wadhwani (@anitawadhwani) March 15, 2022
In 2016, allegations of fraud and financial mismanagement caused most of the city’s officials, who were white, to resign, the Tennessee Lookout reported.
The comptroller’s spokesman John Dunn acknowledged to the Tennessee Lookout that it was “unprecedented for us to publicly call for a town charter to be relinquished.”
The comptroller’s office said it plans to have “direct supervision” of the town’s budget “for as long as it takes for Mason to improve its financial condition.”
Sweet-Love said the comptroller should set a clear end date and reasonable goals for the town to repay any debts, and not have such strict approval of its finances down to $100 expenses.
The state Democratic Party echoed the call for a clear timeline on the financial supervision. “We applaud the leaders of Mason for standing up and refusing to allow the state to force them to dissolve their community,” the party said in a statement. “We must demand that the state provide them with a timeline on returning power to Mason’s duly elected leaders.”