‘Deeply concerned and disturbed;’ Activists demand release of kids taken after traffic stop

Leaders of the Tennessee State Conference of the NAACP on Friday issued a public demand for the release of five Black children taken from their parents after a misdemeanor traffic stop in rural Tennessee last month, saying they were “deeply concerned and disturbed” by the events.

The civil rights organization, joined by its local, youth and college chapters, is also calling for a full investigation into all departments involved in the removal of the children, ages 7, 5, 3, 2 along with a four-month-old nursing baby.

For more than a month, the children have been without their parents in the custody of the Department of Children’s Services.

“The couple’s children were unjustly, maliciously and aggressively taken,” said Thomas Savage, vice president of the Tennessee NAACP, speaking with nearly two dozen other members outside the Coffee County Justice Center, where the kids’ fate remains in the hands of a juvenile judge.

“Considering the dire situation in DCS and its inability to provide a safe environment for all children, as widely reported in the news, we urge all people of good will to contact your legislators with the hope of cleaning up this constant mess with DCS,” he said.

The children and their parents, Bianca Clayborne and Deonte Williams, were driving from their home in Georgia to a family funeral in Chicago on Feb. 17 when they were pulled over in Coffee County by the Tennessee Highway Patrol for tinted windows and driving in the left-hand lane on I-24 without passing.

Troopers who searched their car found five grams of marijuana, a misdemeanor in Tennessee. They arrested Williams, gave Clayborne a citation and told her she was free to go.

Hours later, as Clayborne waited with her children to post bond for Williams, DCS and law enforcement officers physically took the children from her side.

Jimmie Garland, the organization’s Middle Tennessee president, called the situation reminiscent of driving trips through Southern states that he took as a child in the 1960’s when Black families feared being unjustly detained by police, accosted by residents and could not enter restaurants or motels.

“I’m 73 now. Back then we wouldn’t travel if we couldn’t do it in eight hours. When I think what happened back then and what’s happening in 2023, it’s the same scenario. The bottom line is this is because they were driving while black. Instead of Tennessee going forward, it’s going backward,” he said.

Garland called the actions taken against the Georgia family a “travesty.”

A spokesperson for DCS did not respond to a request for comment Friday afternoon.

A Black family from Georgia was pulled over in rural Tennessee for driving with 'dark tint and traveling in the left lane while not actively passing'
Within hours, they had lost custody all five of their children, including a nursing baby https://t.co/iiiG1mI3HD via @TNLookout
— Anita Wadhwani (@anitawadhwani) March 16, 2023

The case gained widespread public attention after a report by the Tennessee Lookout last week. The Tennessee Democratic Caucus has also demanded the children be reunited with their parents.

An emergency court order obtained by DCS on the day the children were taken said they were dependent and neglected and there was “no less drastic alternative to removal available.”

Nearly a week later, on Feb. 24, DCS amended their petition to say the children should be deemed “severely abused.”

Williams had tested positive for THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, on a urine drug screen administered Feb. 23. Clayborne tested negative

The couple were then asked to submit to a rapid hair follicle test, although it is unclear from court records who ordered the second drug test or why; both tested positive for methamphetamines, oxycodone and fentanyl. Clayborne and Williams have denied using those drugs.

A Coffee County court administrator told the Lookout the rapid hair follicle tests are inadmissible in court; an expert said rapid hair follicle tests are known for producing false positives.

DCS nevertheless used the results of the rapid test as the basis for accusing Clayborne and Williams of severe child abuse. DCS also noted that there was a gun in the car and that Williams had not pulled over once THP had turned on their lights to initiate the stop. And they claimed the children had disclosed that their father took them on drug deals.

Williams has called those claims “absolute lunacy.”

The gun was legally in Clayborne’s possession, she said. Neither she nor Williams were cited for refusing to pull over for the THP nor for any gun crimes.

Hours after the Lookout story about the family was published, attorneys for DCS filed motions in juvenile court seeking prosecution and sanctions against the parents and their attorneys for breaking juvenile court confidentiality rules.

On Monday, the family again appeared in Coffee County Juvenile Court to get their children back.

Courtney Teasley, a family attorney, said after the closed hearing she could only reveal that the children will remain in state custody and Clayborne was ordered to submit to another hair follicle test.

There has been no change in that status, Teasley said Friday declining further comment.

The children were initially split between three foster homes, according to their parents. They have since been taken in by a family friend in the Nashville area who agreed to serve as a temporary foster parent. The state retains full custody and decision-making over the children.

In calling for a full investigation of all authorities and jurisdictions involved in the children’s removal, NAACP officials stressed the need for accountability.

“The nightmare is not over until we can guarantee this will never happen to another family ever again,” said Lisa Rung, president of the Franklin County NAACP, located just south of Coffee County.

Coffee County, which is 4% Black, does not have its own local NAACP branch.

Tennessee Lookout is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Tennessee Lookout maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Holly McCall for questions: info@tennesseelookout.com. Follow Tennessee Lookout on Facebook and Twitter.

'Composting' birds: Avian flu hits West Tennessee farm and 267,000 birds are destroyed

The first sign of something awry was the road closure on the two-lane country road that goes right past Will Burton’s Weakley County farm, his fields, barns and the one-story house he shares with his fiancee and three kids.

White trucks — emblazoned with the seal of the Tennessee Department of Agriculture and “fire and burn” stickers — began rolling past around the same time the family began smelling a terrible, new odor. It was distinct from the smell of chicken waste that has been ever-present since a 16-barn industrial chicken operation, a raw meat supplier for Tyson Foods, moved in two years ago over Burton’s objections.

Within days, the smell had bloomed into an overpowering stench of rotting carcasses. The stench now permeates their home, and has cost everyone in the family a good night’s sleep — something Burton said his fiancee’s 11-year-old son with autism has struggled with the most.

My concern is that hundreds of thousands of dead chickens that are infected with the highly pathogenic bird flu are being left to compost on site, beside my house, beside water resources, stinking the whole neighborhood out. How is that safe or legal?

– Will Burton, Weakley County farmer

“He’s losing sleep,” Burton said. “Teachers are sending us notes home that he’s not able to concentrate. I’m getting headaches. It’s just like getting hit in the face —not with chickens, but with death. Just death and rotting carcasses.”

The chicken farm next door, Burton learned after frustrated attempts to get help from state environmental and agriculture officials, is the site of a massive outbreak of the Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) — a virus whose only remedy is destroying infected or exposed chickens.

On Friday, state officials said that more than 267,000 birds have been destroyed in barns this week, just a few hundred feet from Burton’s house. The carcasses will remain in the barns until a composting process is complete — something that can take up to a month, according to information provided Friday by a Department of Agriculture spokesperson.

The recent national outbreak of avian flu was first detected in Tennessee in a backyard flock in Obion County in September. Since then, cases have been detected in Tipton and Bledsoe County. While some outbreaks have occurred among backyard flocks, at least two have occurred on industrial farms that serve as contractors to Tyson Foods.

Scores of Tyson contract farms have proliferated in west Tennessee, often over the objection of local farmers and residents, to supply raw meat to Tyson Foods processing plants. All of Tennessee’s reported avian flu outbreaks have been located in west Tennessee.

Poultry barns for a Tyson Foods industrial chicken farm in Weakley County. At least 267,000 chickens have been killed and will be left to “compost” for up to a month because of avian flu. (Photo: John Partipilo)

“Unfortunately, HPAI continues to spread to farms of all sizes,” Tennessee State Veterinarian Dr. Samantha Beaty said in a Jan. 20 news release about the outbreak next door to the Burtons. “There have been four previous detections in Weakley County affecting backyard flocks. It’s apparent this disease remains a threat to the poultry industry.”

State officials say the outbreak poses no harm to human health from infected birds.

But Burton has questions about the impact on his family. He said he hasn’t been able to get answers from state agriculture and environment officials.

As part of containment efforts, the state established a 12.4 mile zone around the barns, requiring all commercial and backyard poultry within the zone to be tested and monitored for the virus.

The process of killing chickens, then composting them inside the barns in the property adjacent to the Burton’s house was approved by the state’s chief veterinarian, the USDA and Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, the agricultural department spokesperson said.

That process, laid out in painstaking detail in a 31-page protocol shared by the department, consists of adding a six to eight-foot mound of carcasses, litter and feed to a base of mulch on the barn floor, where it is then topped with a layer of sawdust-like materials. In about 28 days, the compost will be ready for removal, the protocol said.

None of the state interventions include mitigating odors, because no state agency in Tennessee regulates them, a source of irritation for Burton, who said he has contacted state environmental and agricultural officials, none of whom would offer any help.

No other environmental monitoring is ongoing at the site beyond the testing of wild birds by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources agency, the spokesperson said.

“Since composting mortalities is a common and accepted method in agriculture, no permit is needed in this case,” she said.

In “composting,” dead birds are piled in six- to eight-foot mounds with chicken feed, litter, mulch and a layer of sawdust, where it can remain for up to a month. State officials say it’s an approved method for disposing of diseased chickens.

“It’s an ag-related odor, they told me,” Burton said. Such odors are protected from nuisance complaints under Tennessee law.

The state’s Right to Farm law, designed to protect Tennessee farmers from nuisance claims by suburbanites or other newcomers moving into an agriculture community, has prevented local farmers from challenging Tyson contractors over odors or other potential environmental hazards before.

It’s been a sore point for communities in west Tennessee communities that have seen Tyson contractors buy up land and establish large-scale industrial chicken operations in close proximity to residential homes and neighborhoods.

Burton has emailed Tyson Foods as well. Tyson, which does not own the farm, relies on its contractor to build barns according to Tyson specifications, raise chicks supplied by Tyson, feed them grain supplied by Tyson, sell them at rates set by Tyson and abide by all Tyson rules.

Burton has not gotten a response, he said Friday. Tyson did not respond to the Lookout either.

“My concern is that hundreds of thousands of dead chickens that are infected with the highly pathogenic bird flu are being left to compost on site, beside my house, beside water resources, stinking the whole neighborhood out. How is that safe or legal?”

Tennessee Lookout is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Tennessee Lookout maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Holly McCall for questions: info@tennesseelookout.com. Follow Tennessee Lookout on Facebook and Twitter.

Scathing audit of Tennessee Department of Children’s Services finds kids are placed in danger

The mission of the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services is to protect vulnerable kids, but a new report paints a detailed and disturbing portrait of a state agency that has repeatedly placed children in harm’s way.

The 164-page audit released Tuesday by the state Comptroller chronicles multiple failures by DCS to keep kids safe once they have been taken into state custody — typically after they have already been abused or neglected in their own homes.

“The safety, permanency, and well-being of Tennessee’s most vulnerable children is in jeopardy,” the report concludes.

The report was released ahead of a legislative hearing Wednesday at which DCS leaders are expected to be closely questioned by state lawmakers. Months of media coverage has featured kids forced to sleep on office floors and in hospital beds, while social workers struggle with enormous caseloads and turnover among staff is at an all-time high.

The Comptroller’s report makes public new details about the dire and damaging conditions children have been subjected to while in the custody of the department.

Children placed in residential facilities who reported sexual abuse or harassment were left “remaining in potentially abusive situations for weeks before the investigator spoke to them,” the audit found. An abuse hotline took as many as 40 days to pass along incidents of sexual abuse of kids in state custody to child abuse investigators, who then sometimes took weeks to do their own investigations.

Auditors found another 34 instances involving children in state custody whose reports of inappropriate sexual conduct weren’t investigated by the agency at all. Those allegations, that may have involved child perpetrators, were reported to law enforcement, but the audit notes that DCS officials failed to investigate whether the adults charged with supervising these children failed to do their jobs.

“The Commissioner and Deputy Commissioner of Juvenile Justice should ensure that DCS has a robust response system that supports zero tolerance of sexual abuse and sexual harassment within all residential facilities,” the audit said.

A DCS contractor’s employee was the subject of 16 internal investigations for reported physical abuse of children in state custody over a two year period, but continued to be allowed to work with kids. In May 2022, he was indicted on charges of aggravated assault and reckless endangerment with a deadly weapon after firing on children who had fled a Nashville residential facility in a car. The report makes no mention of injuries to the children, but notes the car crashed.

“When management does not identify staff with multiple investigations of misconduct, such as those involved in the aggravated assault and reckless endangerment case discussed above, similar tragedies are likely, and management is therefore increasing the risk of harm to children,” the audit said.

And, the report notes, kids who should have been in foster care homes spent up to 38 nights sleeping in inappropriate temporary housing, including DCS offices.

“Children in temporary settings do not always have food, clothes, beds or a shower,” the audit noted. “Given placement shortages, the use of temporary settings when no other long-term placements can be found has transitioned from a rare emergency occurrence to an increasingly necessary department practice.”

State Sen. Heidi Campbell, D-Nashville, and Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, in a news release on Tuesday noted they have created a website documenting DCS shortcomings. The pair pointedly criticized Gov. Bill Lee and the state’s Republican leadership for blocking a bill this year that would have capped caseloads.

“Children, who came to DCS because they suffered neglect or abuse, are being victimized a second time because the governor and supermajority have failed to invest in the people responsible for their care,” Johnson said.

Campbell noted the crisis at DCS is not news to state leaders.

“There is no excuse for inaction, halfhearted fixes or more delay,” she said. “The department’s top responsibility is to keep children out of harm’s way and we will sound the alarm until the state lives up that promise.”

DCS Commissioner Margie Quin has been in the job since September, tapped by Gov. Bill Lee to address crises within the agency, which receives about $1.1 billion annually in federal and state funding to investigate child abuse and neglect, run the state’s foster care system and oversee Tennessee’s juvenile justice programs.

Last month, Quin requested a $156 million budget increase to raise caseworker salaries, pay private residential centers higher rates and create more suitable temporary homes while the state subcontracts foster care recruiting and management to build up a more adequate pool of foster homes.

That budget increase, if approved by lawmakers, would not take effect until July.

Lee has said he believes the state has some options to expedite financial aid to the agency, possibly using funds within the current state budget, but has declined to call a special legislative session to address the crisis.

Tennessee Lookout is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Tennessee Lookout maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Holly McCall for questions: info@tennesseelookout.com. Follow Tennessee Lookout on Facebook and Twitter.

GOP lawmaker to strip Vanderbilt Hospital of child transgender surgeries after Twitter outrage

Fueled by a Twitter report, Republican lawmakers are planning to pass legislation in 2023 to stop Vanderbilt University Medical Center from performing pediatric transgender surgeries.

Meanwhile, Gov. Bill Lee requested an investigation, and Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti’s Office said he will use the “full scope” of his authority to make sure state law is being followed.

House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, said in a statement he is looking into “conflicting reports” on the matter but noted it is “inappropriate for any minor to have any gender reassignment surgery or puberty blockers given to them.”

“Your biological sex at birth is your identity. There will be legislation filed this session by many members to protect Tennesseans from this barbaric practice,” Sexton said.

Outrage surfaced among some legislators after conservative blogger Matt Walsh posted video and reports Tuesday showing Vanderbilt officials discussing gender affirming surgeries.

Walsh, a political commentator, blogger and podcaster for the conservative Daily Wire, engaged in similar social media accusations against Boston Children’s Hospital last month. What followed there were threats of violence against staff and doctors, including a bomb threat that forced the evacuation of the hospital.

A statement released by Vanderbilt University Medical Center on Wednesday noted that the acclaimed teaching hospital is “now the subject of social media posts and a video that misrepresent facts about the care the Medical Center provides to transgender patients.”

“VUMC began its Transgender Health Clinic because transgender individuals are a high-risk population for mental and physicial health issues and have been consistently underserved by the U.S. health system.”

The statement noted the hospital provides care to all adolescents “in compliance with state law and in line with professional proactive standards and guidance established by medical speciality societies,” including requiring parental consent to treat minors for issues related to transgender care.

On Wednesday, the web sites for the Vanderbilt Clinic for Transgender Health and associated pages regarding transgender care were down. The hospital did not respond to follow-up questions about the sites or whether there were security concerns at the hospital.

Walsh on Wednesday posted a series of videos on Twitter he said were taken in 2018 and 2020, including one featuring Vanderbilt physician Dr. Shayne Taylor calling gender transition surgery a “big money maker.” Some procedures, which are covered by the Affordable Care Act, could bring in up to $40,000 and others could cost $100,000, Taylor said in the video.

Taylor does not refer to children in the video clip Walsh posted, which did not appear to contain her full remarks.

Another video Walsh posted includes a Vanderbilt plastic surgeon discussing guidelines doctors must follow before performing “top surgeries,” or double mastectomies, on transgender patients. The requirements include a letter documenting persistent gender dysphoria from a licensed mental health provider and ensuring patients are capable of making fully informed decisions on their own, the physician said. Patients who are 16 or 17 years of age who have been on testosterone and have parental consent may also qualify, the doctor said.

But Walsh inaccurately characterized the remarks to suggest that after children are “drugged and sterilized,” Vanderbilt surgeons “will happily perform double mastectomies on adolescent girls.”

Walsh also posted an undated video of Dr. Ellen Clayton, a Vanderbilt professor of law, pediatrics and health policy, noting that “conscientious objections” to gender affirming surgery is “problematic.”

“You are doing something to another person and you are not paying for the cost of your belief,” she said. “I think that’s a real issue,” she said. She noted that Vanderbilt would likely accommodate religious objections, but “it would not be without consequences.”

It’s not clear from the edited clip posted whether she was referring to consequences for patients or for staff.

In its statement, Vanderbilt University Medical Center noted its policies “allow employees to decline to participate in care they find morally objectionalbe, and do not permit discrimination against employees who choose to do so. This includes employees whose personal or religious beliefs do not support gender-affirming care for transgender persons.”

In addition, Walsh singled out Vanderbilt’s “Trans Buddies” program, for providing “trans activists” to accompany patients to appointments.

The program, a VUMC statement noted, has received national acclaim for providing peer volunteers to support people seeking “highly personal care in an unfamiliar environment, and who may have been refused medical services in the past or avoided seeking them out of fear of being met with hostility.”

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally and Sen. Ferrell Haile, who sponsored legislation in 2021 to restrict transgender drug therapy and surgery for prepubescent children, said they expect a bill dealing with transgender medical care to be sponsored in 2023 when the 113th General Assembly convenes.

Haile, a Gallatin Republican, said his two concerns are making sure Vanderbilt Hospital is following state law and then to ensure the hospital didn’t find loopholes.

He pointed out a “medical consideration” must be considered with any follow-up legislation, but he declined to speak further about the matter.

McNally said Wednesday he believes “sexual reassignment” surgery should be delayed until a person is past puberty, even if parents give consent, because of the long-term impact on the patient.

“I think in many cases, the individual, the child, later in life has difficulty with what’s happened, and I think it’s better to wait and make sure that’s what they need to do, if the parents and child are considering having something like that done,” said McNally, an Oak Ridge Republican.

Gov. Lee issued a statement saying he wants a probe of the hospital to make sure it is operating legally.

“The ‘pediatric transgender clinic’ at Vanderbilt University Medical Center raises serious moral, ethical and legal concerns. We should not allow permanent, life-altering decisions that hurt children or policies that suppress religious liberties, all for the purpose of financial gain. We have to protect Tennessee children, and this warrants a thorough investigation,” Lee said.

And Skrmetti issued his own statement, which said he was “aware of allegations of illegal conduct at the Clinic for Transgender Health. General Skrmetti will use the full scope of his authority to ensure compliance with Tennessee laws.”

Chris Sanders, executive director of the LGBTQ advocacy group Tennessee Equality Project, was critical of the Twitter report’s source.

“Matt Walsh has this history of going after trans people. He’s really got a focus and obsession on this. So what has caught everybody off guard is this sudden firestorm that’s arisen over gender-affirming care that’s been offered,” Sanders said Wednesday.

Rather than protecting children, the rhetoric by Republican lawmakers on Wednesday is putting their safety and well-being in danger, said Jace Wilder, a master’s student and research fellow at Vanderbilt University.

“That the attack on Vanderbilt is encouraged by the Lee Administration is disgraceful,” he said.

“They are using trans kids as political pawns. They’re saying this is going to protect kids, but this is going to further perpetuate violence,” Wilder added.

House Republican leaders filled Twitter with outrage, promising to dismantle the Vanderbilt program.

Majority Leader William Lamberth said he is “deeply troubled” by the social media report.

“@GovBillLee is right to call for an investigation and we will support that investigation 100%. This type of child mutilation should be illegal and soon will be in TN,” Lamberth said on Twitter.

House Republican Caucus Chairman Jeremy Faison wrote on Twitter, “Giving hormone replacement treatments to minors is unconscionable but threatening doctors with ‘consequences’ who have religious objections is against everything this country stands for.”

He added that he would lead the “fight” next session to stop the procedures.

Their stance conflicts, however, with a statement by the American Medical Association.

In a letter to the National Governors Association, Dr. James L. Madara, CEO and executive vice president of the association, wrote that the group and its member governors oppose state legislation that would prohibit medically necessary “gender transition-related care to minor patients” because it represents a “dangerous governmental intrusion” into medical practice and could harm the health of transgender children nationwide.

State lawmakers have already passed legislation restricting gender-affirming hormones for children prior to puberty. Sanders pointed out this type of medicine was not being practiced when Haile sponsored his legislation.

A separate bill to ban hormone therapy and gender affirming surgery for all minors failed in the Legislature earlier this year.

State Rep. John Ray Clemmons, a Nashville Democrat, criticized the political outrage over Vanderbilt hospital’s practices.

“Rather than using taxpayers’ money to investigate an internationally renowned and respected health care facility,” Clemmons said, he would support investigations into Gov. Lee’s use of no-bid contracts, failure to use federal welfare funds, shortcomings of the Department of Children’s Services, the departures of Lee’s cabinet members and alleged bribery by state officials during the 2019 House vote on vouchers.

Tennessee Lookout is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Tennessee Lookout maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Holly McCall for questions: info@tennesseelookout.com. Follow Tennessee Lookout on Facebook and Twitter.

Comptroller to take over majority-Black town of Mason, ahead of Ford investment in west Tennessee

Tennessee Comptroller Jason Mumpower said Tuesday that he will be taking control of the finances of Mason, Tenn. a majority Black town of about 1,500 people located with five miles of the future site Blue Oval City, the Ford electric truck and battery plant that represents one of the largest manufacturing investments in the state’s history.

“I’m sad for the taxpayers of Mason,” he said. “We will be working hard to step in and get their finances in shape.”

The Comptroller’s move comes over the objections of Mason’s elected officials, who have been fighting to maintain control over their town since Mumpower issued an ultimatum last month: either cede control of Mason’s 153-year-old charter or face a financial takeover by the state.

Relinquishing its charter would have placed the majority Black, majority Democrat town under control of largely White and Republican-led Tipton County. On Monday night, the town’s Board of Alderman, in an emergency meeting, passed a resolution to keep their charter, Vice Mayor Virginia Rivers said Tuesday.

It was that decision that the Comptroller said led him to act. Mumpower’s staff will likely finalize their takeover plans by the end of the week.

“This has always been a decision for the (Mason) Board of Aldermen to make,” Mumpower said.

A financial takeover will give the Comptroller veto power over every expense of $100 or more, limiting the authority of elected officials to embark on plans already underway to implement beautification projects, improve infrastructure and hire a codes enforcer. Benefit, workforce and other budget cuts may soon follow.

Rivers said Tuesday that neither she nor any other local official had received any word from Mumpower on the planned takeover. Mason’s elected officials will meet as soon as they can to weigh any next steps, she said.

Rivers last week likened the Comptroller’s efforts to take control from Mason’s duly elected officials as “akin to a hostile take-over,” coming just as Mason is poised to reap the benefits from billions of dollars in investments in the region from Ford.

Mason, which occupies fewer than two square miles, lies just 4.5 miles from the newly planned Interstate-40 off ramp that will bring interstate traffic directly to Blue Oval City. Highway 79, which links Blue Oval to Memphis, runs right past Mason’s small central district. And CSX railroad runs directly through the town on a route that will take it straight to the Blue Oval campus.

“There’s no way Mason won’t prosper and grow, Rivers said. “And now they want to take it away from us.”

Mumpower has pointed to a 20-year history of fiscal mismanagement by town leaders that has left it with deep debt and crumbling infrastructure. Mason leaders, he said, are ill prepared to take advantage of growth and new investments to come with Blue Oval City.

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 alderman are Black.

On Tuesday, Mumpower said he acted after “a lot of empty promises over the years” from town officials to get on a surer financial footing. The city’s tax rate is the highest in the county, yet residents receive few services, he said. City officials have relied on income from their utility district budget for their general fund, contrary to Tennessee law. Paying back the improper utility budget transfer is Mumpower’s first priority, he said. We will “immediately pay (that) back as quickly as possible,” he said.

Mumpower will also immediately review or eliminate discretionary spending and require town officials to submit financial statements on a weekly basis, he said.

“Every expense will have to be viewed or reviewed by the Comptroller,” Mumpower said.

Taking control of finances from local elected officials is a rare, but not unprecedented step, in Tennessee. Van Buren County has been under the financial oversight of the Comptroller since 2020. The town of Jellico, in Campbell County, was under the financial control of the Comptroller between 2013 and 2018. In the late 1980s or 1990s, according to a spokesman, Polk County was under similar oversight.

“The vast majority of Tennessee cities and counties adhere to corrective action plans and work to correct their financial issues before it gets to this point,” said John Dunn, the spokesman.

An open-ended scenario with no specific benchmarks in place to return power to local officials troubles Van Turmer, president of the Memphis NAACP Branch and a member of the organization’s legal redress committee. “We need a timeline of how long this is going to take and what specific metrics they are using,”he said.

The Comptroller’s authority to take financial control of cities and counties rests in a provision of Tennessee law, which says, in part, that he “shall have the power and the authority to direct the governing body of the local government to adjust its estimates or to make additional tax levies.”

How long the Comptroller’s oversight will last — and under what specific conditions it ends — are decisions the Comptroller will ultimately make, Dunn said.

“In the past, we have not set an end date for our oversight,” Dunn said. “Our approvals typically are required until we are confident that the town is set up for financial success.”

But an open-ended takeover with no specific benchmarks in place to return power to local elected officials is the very scenario that troubles Van Turner, president of the Memphis NAACP Branch and a member of the Tennessee Conference of the NAACP legal redress committee, which is providing support to Mason officials. Without benchmarks and a timeline, Turner said, he believes that citizens and local officials have grounds for a lawsuit.

“We need a timeline of how long this is going to take and what specific metrics they are using before they transfer power back to Mason,” he said. “Because it can’t go on forever. That would be an indirect taking of its charter.”

“Each city in our state should be given the ability to rule itself,” Turner said. “Citizens need to have financial control returned to them because it’s they who pay taxes and elect their representatives. We would just hope it’s not some sort of grab so the state is receiving revenues and opportunities” from the arrival of Ford’s manufacturing campus.

“This is a very concerning issue for the NAACP,” he said. “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.”

Read more:

‘This is akin to a hostile takeover’ State officials ask residents of small, predominantly Black town near the site of new Ford investment to forfeit their charter or face takeover.

Tennessee Lookout is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Tennessee Lookout maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Holly McCall for questions: info@tennesseelookout.com. Follow Tennessee Lookout on Facebook and Twitter.