BY JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
The word freeholder will die as an official governmental title at year’s end.
On Friday, Aug. 21, Gov. Phil Murphy signed legislation requiring the title “chosen freeholder” to be changed to “county commissioner” and all “boards of chosen freeholders” to be known as “boards of county commissioners.” The bill was introduced in March by Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker and Assemblywomen Bettylou DeCroce and Verlina Reynolds-Jackson.
The naming of county legislators as freeholders is unique to New Jersey and dates to the state constitution of 1776.
“Proudly, New Jersey is no longer the only state with this title,” said Union County Freeholder Angela R. Garretson.
As confusing as the name may be to some, the authors of the law say there’s bias associated with it, and that’s why they sought the change.
While a freeholder has always been a member of the board that governs a county, the title of freeholder, created in revolutionary times, meant a landowner who was free of debt and who could therefore hold public office.
Although the constitution says “all inhabitants” are eligible for the office, at the time a Black man or a woman of any race could not run for or hold an elected position because they could not own land.
Essex County Freeholder President Brendan Gill said discarding the freeholder title is long overdue, citing the word’s roots in systemic racism.
Zwicker said that’s why he sponsored the bill. “As a term dating back to before the Revolutionary War, whose meaning was historically intended to keep county-level office restricted to white, male, debt-free property owners, it is not only outdated and archaic, but it is offensive to people of color and women. Our racist and sexist laws and conditions historically kept people from voting and owning land.”
Gill said: “There’s a lot of hurt in the symbolism of that word.”
In addition, he said the title county commissioner was clearer.
Some criticism of the bill centered on the cost of the name change during the economic downtown due to the pandemic. The bill would require counties to update letterheads, stationery and other paperwork, as well as their websites, to bear the title county commissioners within one year of the bill’s effective date of Jan. 1, 2021.
The bill would not require counties to update or replace signs or other paperwork to reflect the title change if doing so would require the expenditure of county funds. In such a case, the title would have to be changed whenever the paperwork is next updated or replaced in the ordinary course of business.
Gill anticipated changes to legal documents and updates to county websites. Most Essex County buildings don’t carry the name of Board of Chosen Freeholders on them; most dedication plaques have board members’ names on them, he said.
Today there are 19 Black and 43 women freeholders in New Jersey.
“We have an obligation to ensure that governance in New Jersey is inclusive and representative of the tremendous diversity of our great state,” Murphy said. “Amid a national reckoning to reexamine vestiges rooted in structural racism, this action will eliminate the use of the term ‘freeholder’ in county government — a title that is an outgrowth of a time when people of color and women were excluded from public office.”