Gov. Phil Murphy signed into law a bill retiring the title of county freeholder Friday. They’ll be known as county commissioners starting Jan. 1, 2021.
“We have an obligation to ensure that governance in New Jersey is inclusive and representative of the tremendous diversity of our great state,” he 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.”
The roots of the term freeholder date back to colonial times, when it was used to refer to men who owned land free of debt. Only land-owning white men were given the right to vote then.
Lawmakers increasingly conscious of race amid nationwide protests over the police killing of George Floyd, sought to phase out the term, finding allies who wanted the freeholder title nixed because few New Jerseyans know what a freeholder is.
“As a former freeholder, I believe it is important that the public knows the substance of what a freeholder does rather than what the term freeholder is,” State Sen. Joe Pennacchio (R-Montville) said. “Today’s action was nine years in the making from when I initially proposed the abolishment of the antiquated term. The title ‘county commissioner’ will lend itself to transparency. This revamp will ensure more Garden State residents better understanding the function of this important position in county government.”
The measure won some bipartisan support, though some Republican members in both chambers voted against its passage.
Some cited financial concerns. The bill requires county governments update stationary, websites and signs, among other things, to reflect the title change, though the bill doesn’t require such changes be made by Jan. 1 if doing so would strain county resources.
“Proudly, New Jersey is no longer the only state with this title,” said Union County Freeholder Angela R. Garretson. “Although we may be the last state to end this vile categorization of county officeholders, we are the first to pass legislation and sign it into law, with overwhelming bipartisan support from State leaders with integrity and vision. I am also happy, so many county level officials joined the movement to update and embrace the universally understood and inclusive title of county commissioner.”
Garretson originally raised the issue with Murphy. Garretson, Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford), Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker (D-South Brunswick), Assemblywoman Verlina Reynolds Jackson (D-Trenton), Essex County Freeholder Rufus Johnson were present at the bill signing.
“As we work to bring justice and equality to all Americans, we must recognize that symbolism matters,” Sweeney said. “The public job title of ‘freeholder’ perpetuates a legacy of bigotry that disenfranchised groups of Americans and denied them full rights and equal opportunities. We should be diligent in erasing all remnants of oppression that are unjust and divisive.”