A tiny, majority-Black town in Tennessee which was poised to benefit from a massive investment from Ford Motor Company has instead been taken over by the state’s comptroller.
Mason, Tenn., has about 1,500 residents. Most of its elected officials are Black and members of the Democratic party, in stark contrast with the mostly-white and Republican-controlled Tipton County government as well as Tennessee Comptroller Jason Mumpower, who on Tuesday took the step of seizing control of Mason’s finances.
Mumpower’s power grab comes after he’d given Mason’s government a choice between relinquishing its charter–essentially giving away control of the town to Tipton County–or having him step in and assume control of the municipality’s budget and spending powers. According to Tennessee Lookout, a local government watchdog website, Mumpower says the move was necessary to address financial mismanagement in Mason.
But the city’s elected officials aren’t so sure about that.
From Tennessee Lookout:
Mason officials have pushed back on Mumpower’s assessment. The town ended up in a half-million-dollar financial hole caused in large part by fraud and embezzlement during prior administrations, Rivers said. Rivers said she and other officials have been working hard to pay off debts accrued under those previous administrations.
Rivers and other town officials have questioned why Mumpower or other state officials did not intervene before now. Mason, which still serves as home to descendants of freed slaves, was led by White officials for more than a century. The town’s first Black Mayor, Gwen Kilpatrick, assumed office in 2015 after allegations of fraud and mismanagement led to the resignations of nearly all City Hall officials, who were White. Mason residents have elected Black leaders ever since. Mason’s current mayor, vice mayor and five of its six aldermen are Black.
Automotive giant Ford is planning to invest a reported $5.6 billion in a massive new electric vehicle and battery facility dubbed Blue Oval City, which will sit just four miles from Mason. According to the Tennessee Lookout story, the main highway between Memphis and Blue Oval City, as well as a rail line and other critical infrastructure run right through Mason.
That puts Mason likely on the cusp of a huge windfall in tax and development revenues, none of which its elected mayor or city council will control with Mumpower in charge.
The situation recalls other incidents of white officials moving to take control of municipal spending from Black ones.
In 2018, the public development authority in Duquesne, Pa., transferred $1.3 million from the city’s development funds to a private nonprofit entity controlled by an all-white board that included former city officials, just before the city’s first Black woman mayor, Nickole Nesby was sworn into office. Duquesne, a Pittsburgh suburb, sued to get the money back and its city council agreed to a settlement that allowed the money to stay with the private group while having the city appoint someone to its board of directors. Nesby opposed the deal.