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LaFAYETTE, Ga. — For the first time in 16 years, someone new will take the reins of Walker County, Ga., government.
Republican Shannon Whitfield cruised to victory Tuesday night with 17,361 votes, unseating Bebe Heiskell, who has been the county's sole commissioner since 2001.
Perry Lamb, who ran as an independent, came in second with 3,503 votes. Heiskell, who abandoned the Republican Party to run as an independent, finished last with 2,960 votes, according to complete but unofficial results.
Whitfield will take office in January 2017 for a four-year term.
The chief financial officer of his family's oil company and a former Chickamauga city councilman, Whitfield ran a campaign based on the county's finances. He said the county needs to reduce debt and shrink its budget.
"I felt all year we had a great shot of winning," Whitfield said Tuesday night from the Bank of LaFayette's community room, where dozens of supporters in blue Whitfield T-shirts tracked the results of the presidential and county commissioner races. "We had a lot of people praying for us."
Heiskell did not return a call seeking comment Tuesday. Whitfield praised her for working as sole commissioner for 16 years, even as he criticized her fiscal management. He expects to meet with her administration in the coming weeks to prepare to take office.
Lamb, who qualified as an independent after receiving 1,600 signatures this summer, said he plans to stay involved in county government and attend Whitfield's commission meetings.
"I'll still be a loudmouth," he said Tuesday night.
Lamb continued: "They chose Shannon, a politician with a business background. If I had to do it over again, I'd do it the same way. I ran a clean campaign."
He alluded to criticism Heiskell received after someone controlling her Facebook account insinuated Whitfield had an affair. Heiskell had not addressed the issue publicly since it happened Oct. 28.
Whitfield said when he confronted Heiskell about the post, she said she didn't know anything about it.
The most recent audit, which ran through Sept. 30, 2015, showed the county $53 million in debt, not including a $15 million bond from the development authority. It also did not show a potential $8.7 million bill to Erlanger Health System.
Heiskell said residents should think of the debt as only sitting around $10 million (Whitfield put the number at $80 million). In particular, Heiskell pointed out that more than half of the debt from that audit will be covered with sales tax revenue — something the voters approved of in the 2013 election.
She also did not count the development authority's bond, and she did not count the bill to Erlanger because the county has appealed a federal judgment against it. That appeal is pending.
Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-423-757-6476.