County commission chair expects appointment process for replacement to take at least two months

JONESBOROUGH, Tenn. (WJHL) – Longtime Washington County Sheriff Ed Graybeal has retired.

Graybeal, who has been sheriff since 2003, submitted his retirement letter on Thursday, August 26; that letter is available below.

In the letter, Graybeal requested Chief Deputy Leighta Laitinen serve the remainder of his term, which ends on August 31, 2022. Laitinen becomes interim sheriff upon Graybeal’s retirement, but from there state law gives county commissioners the power to appoint a replacement.

But former Washington County deputy Keith Sexton, currently a lieutenant with the Johnson City Police Department (JCPD), told News Channel 11 Thursday he will vie for the appointment as well.

Sexton, who already has begun a campaign for the 2022 election, said he “absolutely would” accept if tapped for the post, adding “I am seeking their appointment.”

Washington County Sheriff Ed Graybeal submitted his resignation August 26.

The Washington County Commission has 120 days to fill the position, which requires a majority of the 15 commissioners approving a candidate, County Commission Chairman Greg Matherly told News Channel 11 Thursday.

Before discussing that process, Matherly said the commission “will definitely miss the sheriff.”

Matherly said commissioners had “somewhat expected” Graybeal might announce he was retiring before the end of his term.

“I don’t think we knew what day or anything, but he’d indicated some that he was interested in retiring. My brief conversation with him I told him I would miss him, and … we’ve had a wonderful relationship.”

Chairman Greg Matherly and fellow Washington County commissioners are charged with appointing Graybeal’s replacement

Matherly commented on the many years Graybeal has spent serving the public in Washington County, saying he’s “done a lot in our community.”

He said he expects the process to take at least two months — partly due to additional qualifications for sheriffs compared to other constitutional offices such as register of deeds, county clerk or trustee.

Matherly said Tennessee’s Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) commission would have to review any candidates to determine whether they qualify.

Matherly will meet with County Attorney Allyson Wilkinson Monday “and we’ll be laying out a timeline of what that looks like.”

He said they’ll lean on the County Technical Assistance Service (CTAS), which he said recommends commissions leave the post open at least 30 days to accept applications.

“We’re just going to take our time and follow the law and try to develop a timeline that makes sense for all of us,” Matherly said.

Once that’s done, though, he said anyone who meets all the qualifications could be nominated by a commissioner.

Graybeal announced he was out on medical leave in December 2020 and has not publicly announced a return from leave since then.

Laitinen has overseen day-to-day operations since then.

Even though the Republican primary is more than six months away and the general election isn’t until August, Sexton, who’s a former WCSO lieutenant, is already publicly running for the position.

Keith Sexton’s campaign photo (courtesy Keith Sexton)

Sexton oversees JCPD’s training unit, according to his “Sexton for Sheriff” website. His three-point platform includes a desire to “restore openness and trust” in WCSO management “by applying firm, fair, and consistent management practices regarding departmental regulations and enforcement of the law.”

Graybeal himself was initially appointed in 2003, when the commission tapped him to complete Fred Phillips’s term after then Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen appointed Phillips as Tennessee Commissioner of Safety.

Tennessee Code Annotated 8-8-102 outlines qualifications for sheriffs, whether elected or appointed.

Graybeal first won election in 2006 and has since won three more elections, the latest in 2018 when he ran unopposed. He defeated Craig Ford, currently operations director at the Town of Jonesborough, by just 13 votes in the 2014 Republican primary.

Ford raised nepotism and favoritism as issues during that race.

Graybeal’s administration has been at the center of some controversy, particularly in the wake of his son Eddie’s assault charge — and eventual conviction — stemming from a 2018 incident in which the then-lieutenant slapped a suspect who had been arrested and brought into the department.

Graybeal recently lost a bid to have Eddie Graybeal’s law enforcement credentials reinstated by the Peace Officer Standard and Training (POST) Commission.

Ed Graybeal has served with the Washington County Sheriff’s Office (WCSO) for more than 40 years. He was promoted to sergeant in 1981 and captain in 1991, according to his bio on the WCSO website.

Graybeal was Phillips’s chief deputy when he was appointed sheriff after having also served as a captain and a major.

Graybeal is also a decorated Vietnam War veteran, having served in the war as an Army platoon sergeant in 1969-70.