A Year in the Chair
Larsen Jay reflects on an unusual and eventful 12 months heading County Commission — and why he won’t seek the leadership post again.
by jesse fox mayshark • July 26, 2021
larsen jay chairing a County Commission meeting in June 2021. (Photo courtesy of larsen Jay)
Larsen Jay didn’t know what he was getting into last September when his colleagues on Knox County Commission elected him chairman.
Navigating angry activists, a public health crisis and a divided Commission.
“This has probably been the most challenging time in our community's recent history, and certainly in the legislative setting,” Jay said during an interview last week. “And from all sides, whether it be internal or external, national, whatever.”
He had been on the body since he was elected in 2018, and as one of two at-large commissioners he was already accustomed to thinking about the county as a whole. He was also well aware of the COVID-19 pandemic that first surged locally in the summer of 2020, and of disagreements over public health responses to it.
But during Jay’s first month wielding the gavel at County Commission meetings, tensions that had been bubbling under erupted into a chorus of voices at public forum protesting the county’s mask mandate and other health restrictions.
That set off a year that has been punctuated by overlapping traumas in the county that commissioners all serve, angry activists from across the political spectrum, meetings running past midnight, and intra-commission tensions.
But it has also been a productive year, Jay said, ticking off a series of legislative achievements: modernizing the Commission office, finalizing a development deal on the Andrew Johnson Building, forming a Sports Authority to oversee a potential new downtown stadium.
“There’s been some really, really big stuff in the last year,” he said.
And now he’s ready to relinquish the gavel. Jay said that when Commission holds its annual organizational meeting in September, he won’t seek another year as chair. He said he has several initiatives he wants to work on, freed from the administrative demands of Commission operations
“As I look ahead, I just have other priorities that are things that I think can be much more impactful than being the chair and playing referee and coordinating everything,” he said.
Jay is also seeking re-election next year, and is already facing a declared opponent in the Republican primary — one legacy of the turbulent past year.
The County Commission chair is more than a ceremonial position — although the chair has the same vote as every other commissioner, he or she is responsible for scheduling and conducting Commission meetings and workshops, overseeing the operation of the Commission office, and serving on multiple local boards and bodies.
During meetings, by convention, the chair calls on speakers and mostly stays out of debates until everyone else has had their say.
“I think what I started to realize is if the opinion that I held as a commissioner on a particular topic or vote was already being expressed by somebody else in the room, then I just never spoke,” Jay said. “It was only really when I had an issue that either I was championing or I was really of a different opinion or that opinion hadn't been opined on, that I would then offer ‘Here's my perspective.’”
But during the fall and winter, as sentiment grew on Commission to take action against the county Board of Health, Jay often found himself arguing the losing side, sometimes voting as the only Republican alongside the body’s two Democrats in support of local health officials.
Commission’s vote in December to dissolve the board and replace it with an advisory body generated national headlines, because of the county’s status at the time as the fastest-growing COVID hotspot in the country. Of those challenging the board’s authority, Jay said to the New York Times, “They’re fighting over who should hold the fire hose while the fire burns the house down.”
He was attacked relentlessly on local social media by anti-mask and anti-Board of Health advocates, and one of them — political newcomer Christine Cruz, who spoke at many of those Commission meetings last fall — is challenging him in the 2022 Republican primary for his at-large 10th District seat.
Last week, as COVID-19 numbers have begun to creep up locally and the vaccination rate has plateaued below 50 percent of the population, Jay said that he thinks the county overall has done “an OK job” of managing the pandemic.
“It hasn’t been stellar,” he said. “But I’d say it’s OK. It depends on who you ask and what their perspective is. For some people, we did way too much — and yet they’re thrilled we didn’t do a bunch of (other things). For other people, we didn’t do enough — but yet, we did enough to help them. … There were things we did that help, and there were things we did to mitigate it.”
Jay said he has had no second thoughts about his decision to move Commission meetings online from December through February as COVID cases and deaths hit their local peak. The move prompted pushback from some other commissioners, several of whom gathered anyway in the Main Assembly Room of the City County Building.
“I tried to keep our staff and our personnel and our commissioners safe at the height of our numbers,” Jay said. “I had to make a decision that I felt was best for the collective, not the few.”
But he emphasized that Commission and the rest of county government continued to function throughout the tumult, taking significant steps on several fronts. The Commission offices in the City County Building have been renovated and modernized, and a new Commission website offers easy access to information.
Commission majorities joined by Jay approved a revised development agreement for the Andrew Johnson Building, moving that project closer to realization, and the formation of a joint Sports Authority with the city. The latter effort in particular Jay thinks has the potential to be transformative.
“There’s a lot of questions I still have (about the proposal),” he said. “But in general, this is a catalyst for the anchor of growth that is going to start downtown and move east. It’s going to go straight through East Knoxville, and it’s going to go all the way to Straw Plains.”
For the coming year, Jay said he has identified a handful of efforts to focus on. The first is the countywide redistricting that Commission will undertake this fall, to redraw Commission and school board boundaries in line with the 2020 Census.
Some districts will need to grow geographically and others will need to shrink, and there are always overlapping and sometimes conflicting interests at play.
“It's a massive project in a short amount of time that requires a lot of coordination and a lot of strong leadership,” Jay said. “We have to do six months of work in six weeks.”
He plans to work with the Mental Health Association of East Tennessee to develop a regular assessment of regional mental health needs and resources.
“The first year will be about getting an assessment of who's doing what, getting an assessment of the benchmarks and the data to determine how we will measure are we doing better or worse,” he said.
Jay also wants to start a Junior Commission program, in which each commissioner would be paired with a local high school student for a few months. The students would learn how local government works and what commissioners do — including the dubious privilege of sitting in on Commission meetings and workshops.
In all of those efforts, Jay said he hopes some of the tensions and anger of the past year can subside to allow more real dialogue on civic issues.
“We’ve sort of all been in our camps for so long, and the pandemic has exacerbated that,” he said. “Coming back together in a more genuine way is a real priority of mine. Personally, I don’t want to sit on social media and fight with people. I don’t want to trade barbs over meaningless email dialogues. I want to go and sit down with people all over this county.”