JONESBOROUGH, Tenn. (WJHL) – Keith Sexton will be the Washington County sheriff until at least the August 2022 election after Washington County commissioners appointed the Johnson City Police Department lieutenant to fill the remainder of retired sheriff Ed Graybeal’s term.
Commissioners were unanimously in favor of Sexton, a 30-year law enforcement veteran, after he was nominated by Phil Carriger.
Two other candidates had met the qualifications to be considered for the vacancy — Graybeal’s chief deputy, Leighta Laitinen, and former U.S. DEA agent Michael Templeton.
All three were granted five minutes to speak following a public comment period that included several citizens speaking on behalf of each candidate.
In the end, no commissioner spoke up for either Laitinen or Templeton following Carriger’s motion.
After several seconds of silence, Commissioner Jim Wheeler made a motion to cease nominations and appoint Sexton sheriff by acclamation, meaning no vote would be taken. Commissioner Ken Huffine seconded the motion and it was approved unanimously.
“I am honored by the commission’s vote of confidence and I pledge to take the sheriff’s office in a new direction based upon integrity and fairness, making the safety and security of the citizens of Washington County the highest priority,” Sexton said.
Sexton told News Channel 11 he was thankful to God, his family and the friends who have supported him as he’s sought the office.
Sexton will take over the department from Laitinen, who has run it since Graybeal’s retirement at the beginning of September. State law dictates that a chief deputy takes on those acting duties until an appointment of a new sheriff.
While Laitinen touted her experience running the department, Sexton said being a good sheriff was about more than administrative competence.
“You can manage things,” Sexton said. “You can manage budgets, you can manage supply chains, but you have to lead people.
“And to lead people they have to trust you and they have to know that you have been where they’ve been and done what they’ve done. I’ve spent 30 years in this community. I have literally shed blood, sweat and tears. I’ve cried with people at the loss of their loved ones, I’ve done CPR on children, I’ve done lifesaving techniques on other people, I’ve been out there risking my life.”
Sexton said he will name retired Johnson City Police Chief John Lowry as his chief deputy.
The interim sheriff said his top priority in office will be increasing patrol numbers to deter crime and reduce response times.
“We’ve got to have visibility in our communities. Without it we don’t have safe streets,” Sexton said. “That’s only going to happen with deputies in patrol cares out there working together. I’ll be right there working with them to keep our communities safe.”
While he’ll have the job until September of next year, Sexton should have a good idea by early May whether he’ll keep it. The Republican primary is May 3, and unless a Democrat or independent runs and wins, the GOP primary will essentially decide the matter.
The county general election is Aug. 4.
Sexton said the few months in office before the primary will serve as an audition for the voters.
“I’ll campaign just as hard,” Sexton said. “But at the same time, I’m going to take care of the sheriff’s department and the employees and bring some law enforcement back into the county.”
Laitinen, Templeton and Sexton all have expressed their intentions to run in the election.
Laitinen, who resigned as chief deputy Sunday night, told commissioners it was still her intent to run in the election and her hope to be appointed.
If commissioners chose someone else, Laitinen said, “I’ll be at work in the morning wide open and if not I’ll be running for sheriff wide open.”
She also said if she wasn’t selected, she would “do everything I can to make sure it’s a smooth transition for the county.”
That transition will begin Tuesday morning.