Home>Articles>Bartlett: Change ‘Freeholder,’ but not to ‘County Commissioner’

Passaic County Freeholder John W. Bartlett

Bartlett: Change ‘Freeholder,’ but not to ‘County Commissioner’

By John Bartlett, July 15 2020 12:42 pm


With eight years of Freeholder service under my belt, I’m a county government nerd. I literally created a PowerPoint slide deck called “What Is a Freeholder?”

As a White man with family roots that go back to 1620 in Plymouth, I also might have been able to serve on the Board back when you actually had to be a free holder. Checking my privilege means recognizing that it is time to discard the term Freeholder because of what it symbolizes to the majority of New Jerseyans whose families histories are different than mine.

But while I encourage the Legislature to pass S855/A3594, I also encourage them to amend it to convey a different title on those of us now known as Freeholders.

The terminology of government should be self-evident. The old rationale for changing Freeholders’ titles – that “nobody knows what Freeholders are” – should compel us to ask the question: Will people better understand government if we’re called Commissioners?

They won’t, because Commissioner is already over-used as a title for appointed and elected government officials. Take my fellow Passaic County Freeholder Bruce James as an example. Bruce is already a Commissioner five times over: He serves on Passaic County’s Board of Social Services, on our Insurance Commission, on our Housing Authority, on the Camp Hope Commission in West Milford, and on the New Jersey Highlands Council. On each of these bodies, he shares the title “Commissioner” with fellow residents and other elected officials.

Here’s a partial list of the positions that carry the title “Commissioner” in New Jersey:

  • The Governor’s Cabinet (e., heads of Executive departments, other than the Attorney General and Secretary of State)
  • The NJ Board of Public Utilities
  • The NJ Boat Regulation Commission
  • The NJ Casino Control Commission
  • The NJ Civil Service Commission
  • The NJ Election Law Enforcement Commission
  • The State Ethics Commission
  • The NJ Highlands Council
  • The NJ Italian Heritage Commission
  • The NJ Legalized Games Of Chance Control Commission
  • The NJ Lottery Commission
  • The NJ Pinelands Commission
  • The NJ Public Employment Relations Commission (PERC)
  • The NJ Racing Commission
  • The NJ Commission on Science & Technology
  • The NJ Sports & Exposition Authority
  • The NJ Turnpike Authority
  • County Boards of Elections
  • County Boards of Social Services
  • County Commissions on the Status of Women
  • County Cultural & Heritage Commissions
  • County Educational Services Commissions
  • County Human Relations Commissions
  • County Improvement Authorities
  • County Mental Health Boards
  • County Mosquito Commissions
  • County Open Space Advisory Committees
  • County Planning Boards
  • County Utilities Authorities
  • County Workforce Development Boards
  • County Youth Services Commissions
  • County Zoning Boards
  • Municipal Agriculture Development Boards
  • Municipal Cable Commissions
  • Municipal Environment Commissions
  • Municipal Fire District Commissions
  • Municipal Historic Preservation Advisory Commissions
  • Municipal Housing Authorities
  • Municipal Human Relations Commissions
  • Municipal Landmarks Commissions
  • Municipal Library Boards
  • Municipal Parking Authorities
  • Municipal Planning Boards
  • Municipal Sewer Authorities
  • Municipal Shade Tree Commissions
  • Municipal Water Commissions
  • Municipal Zoning Boards
  • Municipal Boards of Education
  • Regional Boards of Education
  • The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission
  • The Delaware River Basin Commission
  • The Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission
  • The Delaware River Port Authority
  • The Palisades Interstate Park Commission
  • The Port Authority of New York & New Jersey
  • The South Jersey Transportation Authority
  • The Waterfront Commission of New York Harbor
  • And the governing bodies of the 30 New Jersey municipalities that use the Commission form of government under the Faulkner Act. See N.J.S.A. 40:70-1 et seq.

The meaning of “Freeholder” may not be obvious, but at least this is the complete list of the people you address as “Freeholder” in New Jersey:

  • County Freeholders

So what is a better title? Some have suggested “County Legislator,” but that is inaccurate for most counties in New Jersey. Freeholders are both the legislature and the executive in the 16 counties without a separately-elected County Executive.

Having thought about and discussed it with a bipartisan group of Freeholders from various counties, I believe a better choice would be “County Supervisor.”  That’s what we’re called in six states – Arizona, California, Iowa, Mississippi, Virginia, and Wisconsin – and in 16 of New York’s 62 counties. Unlike Commissioner, County Supervisor would be a unique title in New Jersey. “Board of County Supervisors” artfully conveys our unique role in modern New Jersey, where County government is increasingly a locus of shared services and where in many cases we have budgetary authority but not complete administrative control over units of County government like Sheriffs’ and Clerks’ offices.

Look, this is not the hill I’m going to die on.  If the Legislature passes and the Governor signs the proposed legislation as-is, I will run for re-election next year as a “County Commissioner.” I am honored to serve under whatever title. But the old rationale for changing our titles – that “Freeholder” was confusing and opaque – isn’t solved by calling us Commissioners. If anything, it’s exacerbated. Instead of constantly answering the question “What is a Freeholder?”, we will be answering the question, “You’re the commissioner of what, now?”

The truth is, there’s no perfect new title to solve that dilemma. I can tell you from 8 years’ experience: People grasp County government not from our titles but from our service. When County officials are out in the community serving and talking with folks, it is our work – expanding access to education and business opportunity, eliminating language barriers, improving infrastructure, ensuring fair & welcoming service, and connecting authentically with the communities we serve – that is our calling card. Not our titles.

But assume we’re not going to do this again for 244 more years. Let’s get it right. We can find a title that respects the diversity of those who hold it today and the unique and important role that County government plays in the Garden State. I think that’s “County Supervisor.”  What do you think?

John W. Bartlett is an attorney and Passaic County Freeholder, first elected in 2012.

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