Samantha_lee_2_1207Samantha ‘Sam’ Lee at Fair Haven borough hall


Samantha ‘Sam’ Lee knows from customer service. She’s tended the fresh farmhouse cheeses at London luxury purveyor Harrods and assembled gift baskets at Sickles Market.

But if Fair Haven residents have recently noticed that their town newsletter is brimming with helpful information and the borough website makes other towns’ sites look like fossils from a predigital age, they may not be aware that it’s Lee who’s behind this transformation.

Lee combines her understanding of customer service and her analytical problem-solving skills — no doubt honed by her two law degrees (one is undergraduate, she patiently explains for those unfamiliar with the British university system) — to municipal government, a place not exactly famous for innovation.

She’s doubled the size of the “Focus on Fair Haven” newsletter and convinced busy borough administrator Mary Howell to write a monthly update. Lee also enlivened the website, adding touches such as a slide show of images from the town’s past and present and a trail map Fair Haven Fields.

But it’s the focus on helping residents that makes the website shine, such as the easy sign-up for emergency e-mail alerts on its homepage. Lee also added a section for downloading municipal forms and a 24-hour drop box, made sure that the detailed calendar of borough events, services and schedules is continually updated, and made current meeting notices, agendas, and minutes available electronically.

They’re features that win kudos from Tinton Falls Council President and local government website advocate Mike Skudera.

“The website has a clean design and the homepage makes it easy to access important information quickly,” Skudera tells redbankgreen.

Lee crossed the Atlantic Ocean to live here a decade ago with husband Gavin Warnes, and had recently been volunteering on Fair Haven’s Shade Tree Commission. In April, she was hired as an administrative assistant by the borough.

“They were looking for someone to answer phones,” she says.

Fair Haven got much more than that. The newsletter now includes residents’ input, Lee says. “It’s more about people in town now, and not just us giving information. It didn’t take long to get people to start sending us stuff.” The newsletter contains news about fundraisers, cocktail and garden parties, local sporting events, service announcements, photos of residents, charity auctions and so forth, she says.

Lee’s strength is in valuing service to others. “It’s a pleasure to serve, and I like fixing problems,” she says, but that does not mean she takes any disrespect. “I have a strong sense of my own dignity and boundaries.”

Lee shies away from being photographed, and laughs at the idea that she’s newsworthy. Soft-spoken and a little reserved, the Fair Haven resident becomes animated when talking about her work and the things she loves, including cheese.

Cheese, she says, “could never be boring.” All the glorious variations of cheese come from one simple idea, she explains, of preserving milk to create curd.

Lee parlayed this passion into work caring for cheeses at the cheese counter at Harrods, a job she said required meticulous attention to detail, because the cheeses did not all age well. “The happiest 3 or 4 years of my life,” she says of her stint there. “A fantasy place to work.”

With unusual restraint in a gossip-sodden age, Lee refuses to dish on the celebrities she served. “It’s indiscreet,” she says. “I don’t think anyone else should get to know what kind of cheese they like in their sandwiches.”

Now U.S. citizens, Lee and Warnes are busy renovating an old Victorian house, and is excited to have a front porch, a rarity at home, she says.

Meantime, she’s researching domain names in hopes of starting her own food-related blog. Her inspirations are Nigel Slater, Nigella Lawson and Claudia Roden, all Brits.

“Nigel Slater is the most fabulous food writer,” she says. “He makes eating toast in the bath sexy.”

As for the reputation the British have for bad cooking?

“During the war and into the early ’50s, with rationing, we didn’t have good materials,” she says. “Today, there are plenty of good places to eat, especially gastro-pubs.”

While at Sickles, where she assembled custom gift baskets, a favorite question was, “Are your turkeys freshly killed?”

“My answer was, ‘Bob’s running around back right now with a hatchet.'” At the borough, she gets inquiries about obscure things such as button shops from 30 years ago. She takes it all in stride.

“It goes into the ‘Weird and Wonderful file,'” she says.

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