“Municipal Takeovers”: Failing to Address Corruption While Threatening Democratic Self-Government 

The town of Mason is a small, majority-Black community in the State of Tennessee. For two decades, Mason’s municipal government has been afflicted with serious corruption and financial mismanagement, leading to the resignation a few years ago of almost all of Mason’s elected leadership following allegations of fraud and embezzlement. In the wake of these persistent problems, this past February the Tennessee State Comptroller, Jason Mumpower, sent a dramatic request to every property owner in Mason: vote to dissolve your town (in which case Mason would be absorbed into majority-White Tipton County, thus ending Mason’s 153 years of independent governance), or else the state government will exercise its legal authority to step in and take financial control of Mason’s town government—which would likely lead to drastic layoffs and cuts to municipal benefits. (Mumpower’s ultimatum may well have been influenced not only by Mason’s history of municipal corruption, but also by the fact that Ford Motors is set to open up a massive manufacturing plant nearby, which will bring in significant tax revenue that Mumpower claimed Mason’s town government can’t handle responsibly.)

The situation in Mason may seem extraordinary, but it is far from unique. Roughly twenty U.S. states have laws that permit the state government to take over municipal governments, although the specifics of the laws differ. (Municipal takeovers are often preceded, as in Mason, by presenting the municipality with the option to dissolve and be absorbed into the surrounding county.) Though municipal takeovers come in various forms, they generally entail the appointment of an “intervenor,” such as a state official, emergency manager, or financial control board. In some states, the intervenor’s powers are limited to financial oversight and technical assistance, but in other states (including Tennessee), the intervenor can take steps as radical as entirely dissolving a locality.

Municipal takeovers are, unsurprisingly, controversial. While pursuing a takeover is an extreme step, one can understand why some people might find it warranted, especially when corruption is so deeply embedded in a municipality that it seems inconceivable that the local government can clean itself up. But this view is misguided, at least in the U.S. context. (Municipal dissolution has been deployed and endorsed by some anticorruption advocates in other countries, such as Italy. While some of my arguments may apply in other contexts, this post focuses on the United States.) First, the costs of municipal takeovers are substantial and are often underestimated. Second, the purported benefits of municipal takeovers—at least with respect to addressing the underlying corruption and misgovernance problems in a given community—rarely materialize.

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