The takeover, however, could be shorter than the Comptroller initially predicted, after Mason officials used federal American Rescue Act funding to pay down its utility debt, Mumpower said. The takeover arrangement formally begins Monday.
Since then, civil rights organizations including the NAACP and the Equity Alliance have sent staff and volunteers to Mason to hold meetings and knock on doors, saying they want to show support.
Lawsuit: ‘inconsistent and irregular steps’
The lawsuit narrates a timeline of contacts between the Comptroller’s office and Mason officials that lays out an “intermittent” engagement with Mason officials prior to .
Immediately following Gov. Bill Lee’s September 28 announcement of Ford’s new Blue Oval City electric vehicle plant, the Comptroller increased contact, seeking nearly twice-monthly “touch-base” meetings with Mason officials, the lawsuit claims.
“Nearly from that moment on, (the Comptroller) has sought to disrupt the affairs of Mason,” the lawsuit said. “Now, with construction slated to begin shortly and Mason standing to profit from the influx of labor and money, (the Comptroller) has taken the inconsistent and irregular step of trying to seize Mason’s finances and pressure the town to dissolve its charter.”
Lawyers for Mason – Van Turner, Jr. president of the NAACP Memphis Branch, Nashville attorney Terry Clayton and three attorneys with the Baltimore-based NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund – are arguing that the state lacks the authority to take over day-to-day operations of Mason under the Tennessee law cited by the Comptroller.
The law says that the Comptroller may direct local governments to adjust budget estimates, reduce expenses or levy additional taxes.
“But this provision does not establish that (the Comptroller) has the authority to exert the control he seeks here: to require Mason to receive his office’s approval before any expenditure of over $100,” the lawsuit said.
In affidavits submitted by Mason Mayor Emmitt Gooden, Vice Mayor Virginia Rivers and Reva Marshall, Mason’s part-time financial officer, town officials described a pair of recent video conferences with officials from the Comptrollers office.
On March 29, town representatives posed questions about what to do in an emergency that could require immediate funds in excess of $100. The lawsuit cited recent examples involving urgent expenses: a sewer line back-up that risked flooding residents’ homes, emergency responder vehicle breakdowns and a disruption in IT services that brought town business to a halt until it was repaired. All were urgent expenses.
Comptroller staff they would allocate funds for emergencies, but did not say how much, the lawsuit said. They told Mason officials that, regardless of the time of day, or day of week, the protocol for emergencies would require first responders at the site of an emergency first contact Marshall, the finance officer, who then must contact the the Comptroller’s office for approval, the lawsuit said.
“The ability of Mason to provide emergency services would be dependent upon a chain of telephone calls,” Marshall said in a written affidavit. “Indeed the ultimate decisions related to the health and well-being of citizens would be made by accountants 180 miles away, rather than first responders at the scene.”
‘Three facts about Mason’
The lawsuit stressed three facts about Mason that are “particularly relevant” to its legal claims. First, it noted the town is majority Black, as is its leadership.
Second, the lawsuit noted financial mismanagement by the previous leadership of Mason, almost exclusively White, forced Mason into debt. When that mismanagement came to light by 2016, Mason’s leadership resigned en mass.
Since then, Mason’s mostly Black, leaders have “steadily paid back Mason’s debt and remedied Mason’s financial standing,” the lawsuit said.