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SPHINX MAKES HISTORY AND SPEAKS

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The last time Sharon Lee was quoted in the Asbury Park Press, it was in the context of her work on the Planning Board. She suggested an applicant install an irrigation system to keep the lawn in front of his car dealership green.

That was 15 months ago.

This appears not to be a matter of selective coverage. Even regulars at Red Bank Borough Council meetings might not know the sound of Lee’s voice. Session after session, she sits silent as a sphinx except to record her presence and enter one-word votes. At Monday’s reorganization meeting, she was the only member of the council not to address an audience spilling out of the chambers into the first-floor foyer of Borough Hall.

Which was remarkable given that, at that very meeting, she was named president of the governing body, making history for both her gender and her race.

(Katherine Elkus White, a Caucasian, was mayor for five years in the 1950s, before becoming Ambassador to Denmark, but was elected directly to the post, bypassing the council, and thus never served as president of the body, according to Mayor Pat Menna, whom Lee succeeds as president. Two other African-Americans were council members before Lee, but neither was president, according to former Councilman Tom Hintelmann.)

The presidency is largely ceremonial; the holder of the post runs the show when the mayor is unavailable. Still, Lee says she’s “dumbfounded” that Menna chose her.

“I just can’t believe the level of trust he’s placed in me,” she says.

“I wanted to send a message that we have a diverse community,” Menna says. “I really thought that a woman, or an African-American woman, should have greater exposure. I think Sharon has some good ideas and I think she’s going to step up the plate.”

Of course, a political cynic might note that Lee is one of two councilmembers, both Democrats, whose terms expire this year. The other is R.J. Bifani, and of the two, Lee would appear to be the one who’d benefit more from a higher profile, given her reticence at council sessions.

Elected to the council in 2004, Lee says she’s “not a lifetime politician, nor do I plan to be,” though she says she does plan to stand for re-election.

Lee is aware of her public image as a quiet one, and seems a little torn over it, given that the council dais presents her with “an opportunity to speak and get citizens to hear your opinions,” she acknowledges. Nor is it a true reflection of her involvement in council business, she says.

“I actually tend to be the noisy one in committee meetings,” she tells redbankgreen. “But honestly, I’m not that big on public argument.

“I am a talker, but I prefer discussion, and that’s often not what happens at council,” she says. “Anyone who speaks too quickly, I would question what comes out of their mouths.”

A lifelong Red Bank resident—”a local yokel,” she calls herself—Lee has known Menna since they were children. “She was rocked many times on the lap of my great Uncle Charlie the butcher’s lap at his West Bergen market,” Menna says.

Lee got her first job as a 17-year-old as a teller at a Broad Street bank. Now 51, she lives with her teenaged son on East Westside Avenue. She’s been downsized by the Bell system and is seeking employment.

As an elected official, she says she’s trying to advance her foremost agenda issue, the “stabilization” of home ownership.

Lee says soaring real estate prices have put unprecedented economic pressures on both African-Amercians, who’ve formed an exodus in recent years from the West Side, and on elderly whites on both sides of town. Developers and landlords are offering top dollar, enticing longtime residents to sell and leave town.

“You can’t call it black flight, because it’s happening on the East Side, too,” she says. “The difference is that the white sellers are usually replaced by white buyers, so you don’t notice it as much.”

Lee says she wants to see affordable homes created for young families throughout town. She also believes there’s a need for greater integration of the Latino population, which she praises for its “wonderful family structure.”

Another issue that concerns her, she says, is the widening economic gap created by a downtown that’s gone steeply upscale from the time she was a teenager.

“There’s still two Red Banks,” she says. “As improvements happen downtown, it makes the gap with the West Side all the wider.”

One effort she’s undertaken is to urge downtown merchants to hire local teenagers, particularly from minority groups. Having a child who works in a store encourages parents to spend more time in the business district she says, recalling that her own parents used to drive past the bank where she worked just to see her inside.

Those kinds of small measures are necessary to help nuture a sense that the town belongs to all its resdents, Lee says.

“You can’t stop the train of prosperity, but you can slow it down,” she says. “How we do it is the important thing.”

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