Tennessee lawyers argue charges of racism are “unfortunate distraction” in Mason case

By: - April 13, 2022 8:00 am
Mason Vice Mayor Virginia Rivers, left, poses with Tennessee Comptroller Jason Mumpower and Mason Mayor Emmit Gooden during a recent meeting. (Photo courtesy: Tennessee Comptroller)

Mason Vice Mayor Virginia Rivers, left, poses with Tennessee Comptroller Jason Mumpower and Mason Mayor Emmit Gooden during a recent meeting. (Photo courtesy: Tennessee Comptroller)

Key to allegations that Tennessee Comptroller Jason Mumpower acted with racial discrimination in his efforts to take control of the majority Black, west Tennessee Town of Mason was his unusual suggestion that Mason give up its charter, dissolving the town entirely.

Mumpower’s ask — which first came in February when he made an appearance during a town hall meeting at a local church, then in a letter sent to each one of Mason’s residents — was “unprecedented,”  “unorthodox,” “highly irregular” and at odds with the way the Comptroller has worked with majority White towns struggling financially, a lawsuit filed April 1 by Mason’s leaders claims.

On Tuesday, lawyers with the Tennessee Attorney General, who are representing the Comptroller, called such claims “moot” and said allegations of racial discrimination are “an unfortunate distraction.”

The state’s legal arguments were filed six days after an emergency hearing in Nashville to consider Mason’s request for an immediate halt to the financial takeover by the Comptroller, a step he initiated last month after Mason officials refused to cede the town’s charter. Chancellor Anne Martin said she will rule on Mason’s request before April 15, and invited attorneys for both sides to submit additional arguments before she does.

Lawyers with the Tennessee Attorney General’s office argue that allegations that Comptroller Jason Mumpower acted with racial discrimination in his efforts to take control of majority Black Mason, Tenn. are “moot.”

“The Comptroller’s February 2022 discussion with the Town regarding the Town’s charter is not an action at issue in this suit for declaratory and injunctive relief,” the state’s additional arguments say. “Indeed, the Comptroller’s ability to inform the Town’s residents they could decide to take steps to become part of county government is moot.”

“Because the Town’s constituents are the same people the Comptroller has taken an oath to serve, he spoke directly to the Town and its residents about the Town’s options. The Comptroller’s communications with the Town about its charter had nothing to do with race; thus, the Town’s assertion of racial discrimination — and the town’s denigration of the ‘prior, predominantly white administration’ — is an unfortunate distraction and should not be used to cloud the issues involved in this case.’

Mason officials have argued that its debt — the exact amount remains in dispute, but both sides have preliminarily put it at about $260,000, pending a complete audit — mostly accrued during prior administrations, which were predominantly White. In 2016, nearly every elected official resigned during probes about the town’s finances. Since then, Mason’s leadership has been predominantly Black.

“When leadership of Mason announced it would not relinquish its charter, (the Comptroller) threatened Mason with financial takeover, and proposed drastic restrictions that had not existed while Mason was under previous, predominantly white leadership that actually caused the debt,” Mason’s attorneys, who are affiliated with the state and national NAACP, argued in filings submitted Monday.

Under its current leadership, Mason has taken steps to cut its debt in half and has created a plan to repay all outstanding debt within 27 months, they wrote.  And the Ford Motor Company’s forthcoming $5.6 billion Blue Oval City electric vehicle plant, being built just five miles from Mason, is likely to bring more investment, development and a larger tax base that will inevitably revitalize the community, putting it on an even surer financial footing, they argued.

Mason’s attorneys also argued that the Comptroller lacks the authority to take day-to-day control of Mason. The terms of the Comptroller’s financial takeover include veto power of any town expense of $100 or more — including during, or shortly after, an emergency — and a requirement the town pays more than $9.500 per month on a debt to its utilities, before it pays any other bills, including its employees. The town has been improperly transferring utility customers payments in its general fund, contrary to state law.

Mason, Tenn. City Hall. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Mason, Tenn. City Hall. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Attorneys for the Comptroller argue that the Comptroller’s actions are allowed by state law, citing two state statutes: one gives the Comptroller oversight over municipalities’ annual budgets. If a town fails to balance its budget, the Comptroller “shall have the power and the authority to direct the governing body of the local government to adjust its estimates, to reduce expenditures, or to make additional tax levies,” the law says.

A second law bars cities and towns from using transferring income from its utilities to its general fund. If a city violates the law, then the “municipality is required to submit a plan covering a period not to exceed five years in which to repay the funds. The plan shall be submitted to, and approved by, the director of local finance in the office of the comptroller of the treasury.”

The plan for Mason is “non-discriminatory, tailored to the Town’s needs, and within the Comptroller’s authority,” attorneys for the Comptroller said.

Mason’s attorneys, however, argue the statutes don’t explicitly give the Comptroller the power to micromanage a town’s day-to-day functions, noting that 90% of transactions by town government are for more than $100.

Instead of an exercise of the Comptroller’s authority, Mumpower’s actions violate due process and equal protection rights guaranteed under the United States and Tennessee Constitutions, which “prohibit government officials from applying laws in an arbitrary, irregular, or discriminatory fashion,” Mason’s attorneys argue.

Attorneys representing the Comptroller have also made legal and procedural arguments, contending that Davidson County Chancery Court doesn’t have jurisdiction over the case or the power to “second-guess the Comptroller’s actions.”

The town is seeking a “declaratory judgement” that states the Comptroller does not have the power to take full control of Mason’s finances. Lawyers for the Comptroller argue that state laws governing declaratory judgements do not expressly permit a suit against the state.  The Town also has no standing to make a claim on constitutional grounds, they argued,  citing court decisions that concluded local government cannot invoke the protections of the Fourteenth Amendment against the state. State attorneys have asked that the case be dismissed.

Comptroller hearing
Mason brief


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Anita Wadhwani
Anita Wadhwani

Anita Wadhwani is a senior reporter for the Tennessee Lookout. The Tennessee AP Broadcasters and Media (TAPME) named her Journalist of the Year in 2019 as well as giving her the Malcolm Law Award for Investigative Journalism. Wadhwani is formerly an investigative reporter with The Tennessean who focused on the impact of public policies on the people and places across Tennessee. She is a graduate of Columbia University in New York and the University of California at Berkeley School of Journalism. Wadhwani lives in Nashville with her partner and two children.