Home>Feature>New Jersey will change ‘freeholder’ to ‘commissioner’

Senate President Steve Sweeney, left, Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, center, and Gov. Phil Murphy

New Jersey will change ‘freeholder’ to ‘commissioner’

Fast-tracked bill could move as early as this month

By David Wildstein, July 09 2020 3:01 pm

New Jersey’s freeholders are about to become extinct.

Gov. Phil Murphy, Senate President Steve Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin announced today that they are behind a plan change freeholder to county commissioner, the New Jersey Globe has learned.

“As our nation tears down symbols of injustice, we must also tear down words we use in New Jersey that were born from racism, the three officials said in a joint statement It’s past time for New Jersey to phase out the term ‘freeholder’ from our public discourse –  a term coined when only white male landowners could hold public office. This is not a matter of political correctness; it is a corrective action to replace an outdated designation that is rooted in institutional prejudice.”

Murphy and legislative leaders have agreed to move forward on legislation to change the title. This could happen before the end of the month.

The current plan is to make the change effective in 2021, so 2020 would be New Jersey’s last freeholder election, the Globe was told.  That could change.

New Jersey is the only state that calls county officials “freeholders,” an old English term referring to a person who owned land without any debt.

“This is a good thing, it’s a racist and outdated term, but I’ll miss explaining it to people,” said Charlie Baranski, who sought the Democratic nomination for Morris County Freeholder in Tuesday’s primary, on Twitter.

It’s not immediately clear if legislative leaders will introduce their old bill, or use one introduced by Senate Minority Whip Joseph Pennacchio in 2018.

“New Jersey stands alone while other states have changed the position of freeholder to a commissioner, modernizes the position,” said Pennacchio. “When you have a title, which refers to men ‘free and clear,’ you ultimately discourage individuals from participating in critical local government positions.”

Murphy credited Union County Freeholder Angela Garretson “for her support and vision on this issue.”

Warren County Freeholder James Kern III wants to know how the new plan will affect the titles of other county-level commissioners.

“Hopefully these leaders work with county government,” Kern said.  “The term commissioner already exists for county park commissioners, county bridge commissioners, county election board commissioners, county tax board commissioners, county mosquito control commissioners, and others.”

This story was updated at 3:27 PM to include comment from Murphy, Sweeney and Coughlin, and at 4 PM with comment from Kern.

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