MONROE, CT — Amy Lehaney, 43, learned a lot while working in the office at the Margaret Morton Government Center on Broad Street in Bridgeport, while serving as the city’s deputy director of Health and Social Services, but she didn’t get out much.
Now, as Monroe’s new director of health, Lehaney can spend part of her time out in the field while serving the smaller community, doing restaurant inspections, hosting programs and working with residents and organizations.
Prior to applying for the open position, Lehaney, who lives in Trumbull with Chris, her husband of 17 years, and their two children, Meghan, 13, and Joe, 11, was already familiar with the town.
“I live next door, so we have been to Monroe restaurants and activities,” she said during a recent interview in her office at Monroe Town Hall.
“I like this job, because you’re in the field and in the office,” she said. “This gives me the opportunity to develop relationships with restaurant owners and residents. In Bridgeport I didn’t get those opportunities because I was in operations, so I was excited by the opportunity to get back in the field and get involved in a little bit of everything.”
Monroe’s health director position opened up when Nancy Brault retired on Nov. 30. Lehaney’s first day on the job was on Dec. 19.
“She’s done a great job already,” First Selectman Ken Kellogg said. “She’s digging into things. We’re filling positions. She has a lot of great experience from different communities. I was confident she would hit the ground running and I think she has.”
Since Lehaney started, she assisted in the hiring of Bernice Bova, the town’s new part-time nurse, and of a new sanitarian, who did not start yet. Kellogg said the chief sanitarian position is still open.
The pool of qualified public health candidates is small, due in part to the stoppage of state training programs during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Kellogg. But he said the state recently started a large program for public health workforce development.
Lehaney grew up outside of Philadelphia and graduated from Villa Maria Academy in 1997. She met her husband when both were students at St. Bonaventure University and they are still hardcore fans of Bonnies men’s basketball.
“Last year they made the NIT Finals,” Lehaney said proudly.
She earned her undergraduate degree, a Bachelor of Science in environmental science with a minor in philosophy pre-law.
“I originally wanted to be an environmental lawyer, but that wouldn’t work with law,” she said. “But I liked enforcement from the government side.”
Lehaney took an entry level job in the City of Stamford’s Health Department, which has a program to train its employees. There she earned her certifications and worked her way up.
“I did a lot of complaint inspections in the early 2000s,” she recalled. “Bed bugs were a problem at that time. I loved it. It was exactly what I wanted to do. You were helping people. You were keeping people safe without them knowing it.”
Her job included inspections of restaurants, septic systems, well water and cosmetology.
She worked in Stamford from 2003 to 2010 as an inspector one, then as an inspector two. Next, Lehaney worked as a sanitarian for the town of Fairfield, where she also served as acting director when the director was out sick or on vacation.
“I always knew since Stamford that I wanted to be a director one day, directing the goals and objectives of a health department,” Lehaney said.
She worked in Fairfield for 12 years before accepting the deputy director of Health and Social Services position for the city of Bridgeport in April of 2022.
“It taught me a lot about operations with grants, budgets and staffing,” she said. “When the Monroe director position opened up, I had the experience to apply for it.”
In Stamford, Lehaney said it was “more of a struggle” to get businesses to comply with public health codes, but only because of its larger size.
“In Fairfield, the relationships were important, because usually restaurant owners want their customers to be happy and healthy, and to come back to their business — and that’s what we want too,” she said.
Lehaney said she always tries to, not only tell a business what’s wrong, but how they can fix it so they clear inspections. This way, she said they know she has an investment in them and wants them to do well.
She said the most common problem for restaurants is avoiding a lot of bare hand contact with food. She remembers one owner asking her to stay a bit longer to observe the process in their kitchen.
“Let’s move the rolls over here,” Lehaney said of the different suggestions that can be made. “You change the process.”
When she goes out to eat in Fairfield, she said some restaurant owners still greet her, “Hey Amy! Come on in,” even though it’s been years since she worked in town.
In her new role, Lehaney is still getting her feet wet in Monroe.
“I’m trying to get a feel for what the community wants from the health department, what programs they like,” she said. “I’m still trying to find what the town wants and needs.”