Tough opening night: Jay walks out grinning

Betty BeanKnox Scene, West Knoxville

Larsen Jay smiled for a selfie as he trudged through the deserted City County building on his way to the parking garage. He had just presided over his first Knox County Commission meeting since his colleagues elected him chair, and it was a doozy. His wife, Adrian, had texted congratulations at 11:45 p.m. and told him she’d see him in the morning. The video is stamped 1:53 a.m. and is posted on his Facebook page.

The Monday night meeting stretched into Tuesday to accommodate an angry crowd who wanted to tell the world why the Knox County Board of Health should be disbanded and that the COVID-19 pandemic is fake news. More than 40 speakers, many refusing to wear a mask, weighed in on both sides of the issue ­before the commission voted 8-3 to pass a non-binding resolution to disband the health board. Jay, a Republican, was one of three no votes and was joined by two rookie Democrats. He has received much praise and some scathing criticism, as is reflected by the comments below his video.

He says he’s OK with that, and is reminded of something his mother-in-law told him:

“What people think of me is none of my business.”

Although the resolution had the support of Mayor Glenn Jacobs, who has become the de facto leader of the anti-health department crowd, the signal to noise ratio was about as low as it could go that night because the resolution has no force of law. Jacobs didn’t attend the meeting because he’d been “rear-ended” that afternoon.

The issue has also captured the attention of showboating legislator Jason Zachary, who will attempt to blow up the laws authorizing such boards when he returns to Nashville this winter.

Jay has become the commission chair in the third year of his first term, and those who believe the pandemic is a genuine health crisis are giving him high marks for the aplomb with which he handled the September meeting.

“By the time this came to the commission meeting, it felt like the last couple of months had been a pressure cooker. So, I made the conscious decision to give everybody five minutes. Somebody needed to let the steam out of the pressure cooker so it might bring the temperature down in the community. I told my sons, ‘Tonight is going to be an exceptional example of democracy in action,’” he said.

He believes allowing everyone to have a say was the right thing to do.

“Yes, it was long; yes, it was arduous. But it was the right thing to do and everybody needed to say their piece. The volume of emails is not as great (since then) and the tone of the emails is more courteous.”

Besides, Jay has faced way tougher stuff than hearing out a ticked-off fringe group – like the day in 2007 when he fell a story and a half off a storage building onto a concrete sidewalk and fractured his left arm, both wrists, right elbow, right femur, nose and skull (10 fractures) when nobody else was around. He managed to get his phone out of his pocket and call 911 even though his head was bleeding so profusely he couldn’t see.

After two days in ICU, 19 days on the trauma floor, 10 days in rehab at Patricia Neal and three and a half months in a wheelchair, he emerged with a metal elbow, metal wrists, a metal knee and a profound appreciation for all the flowers well-wishers had sent him.

“I was really struggling every day,” he said. “And more flowers would show up. There were times I had 30-40 bouquets in my little hospital room. It really lifted my spirits. I called it my little jungle of joy and happiness.”

After a while, as he was able to get out of his room, he noticed that many of his fellow patients weren’t as fortunate, so he went back, loaded up his wheelchair with flower arrangements and started making deliveries.

“I told Adrian I’ve got something I want to do to help people, and a year to the date of my accident, we started Random Acts of Flowers, which recycles flowers from weddings and funerals and delivers them to hospitals, nursing homes and hospices.”

Today Random Acts of Flowers has spread to other parts of the country, and Jay, who served as CEO, is transitioning out of the business, as he and Adrian have done with other businesses they have founded.

He says he didn’t know much about flowers when he started, but he learned. And he figures he’s doing the same thing with government. This week, for example, he kicked off a new event he calls a Chairman’s Briefing, where he and others can learn about issues they’ll face as elected officials. The first session was dedicated to getting educated about TIFs and PILOTs (tax increment financing and payments in lieu of taxes) and was attended by Jay and seven other commissioners, including rookies Courtney Durrett and Dasha Lundy. He plans to have several more before the end of the year.

His take-charge, happy warrior approach has been noticed – so much so that there is talk of him running for county mayor. He doesn’t encourage that, and says he is concentrating on learning how to be the best at-large commissioner/commission chair he can be. But he doesn’t say never, either:

“I’m just hoping to bring a little organization and more engagement on big issues that will help us serve this community. I don’t really have a plan – everybody’s jockeying for the next position, and then they never are really honest. If there’s a time when leadership is needed and there’s an opportunity to serve, I’ll do my best. But for now, I’m just going to be a good commissioner. I’d like to be the guy who can still be honest and not worry about making somebody mad.”

Betty Bean writes a Thursday opinion column for

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