Is the term ‘freeholder’ racist? NJ ready to change political title
TRENTON — New Jersey is poised to lose one of its peculiarities: the term "freeholder."
The state stands alone in the nation for using the Colonial-era term for the elected officials that oversee county governments.
There have been numerous efforts in the past to shed the archaic title but now the change seems imminent after Gov. Phil Murphy and the top Legislative leaders — Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-Middlesex, and Senate President Steve Sweeney, D-Gloucester — signed onto the idea this week.
“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 said in a rare 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."
While the idea has gotten pushback from Republicans, it was a Republican who first proposed the name change.
“New Jersey stands alone while other states have changed the position of freeholder to a commissioner, modernizes the position,” state Sen. Joseph Pennacchio, R-Morris, said back n 2018 when he introduced a bill to change the name. “When you have a title, which refers to men ‘free and clear,’ you ultimately discourage individuals from participating in critical local government positions.”
Aside from the term's history, Pennacchio said there is an added benefit of modernizing the name.
“County freeholder is not a term known to many New Jerseyans,” he said back in 2018. “Allowing counties to adopt the name of ‘county commissioner’ while replacing ‘freeholder’ will increase public awareness and bring county government into the 21st century.”
According to the Morris County website, the term originally referred to "any person who owned land free from debts, mortgages, other legal claims or liens." In Morris County's early history, legislative functions were originally performed by judges and later by an elected Board of Chosen Freeholders and Justices.
Mercer County's website notes that the term was adopted at a time "when only those who owned real estate free of debt were eligible to participate in elections or hold public office."
Today, the state's 21 counties have freeholder boards of anywhere from three to nine members.
Monmouth County Freeholder Director Thomas A. Arnone, a Republican, this week called the proposal "mind blowing" because "this is not the time for grand standing and changing the title of elected officials is not going to help anyone."
Arnone said changing the name would cost "thousands of taxpayer dollars [...] to update and change every sign, structure or material that bears the title" — a misleading statement because the proposed law explicitly says it "would not require counties to update or replace signs or other writings to reflect this title change within this timeframe if doing so would require the expenditure of county funds."
The proposal would, however, "require counties to update their letterheads, stationary, and other writings, as well as their Internet websites, to bear the title of county commissioners in place of freeholders or chosen freeholders within one year of the bill’s effective date."
Back in 2018, Ocean County Republican Freeholder John C. Bartlett Jr. called the proposal a "stupid idea" in part because the term "commissioner" is already widely used for members of existing county commissions and local governments.
“At least if you’re going to come up with a new name, come up with something that makes some sense,” Bartlett was quoted as saying at the time.
But the major reason for his opposition had more to do with a simmering culture war that has since erupted, resulting this summer in the removal of statues from public parks and the renaming of buildings, schools and teams.
“It seems to me we are in a frenzy in this country right now to tear down statues, to tear down monuments, to tear down things that perhaps have pieces of them that might not be appropriate today, but were appropriate in their own term and time,” Bartlett said back in 2018.
The statement this week from Murphy, Sweeney and Coughlin said the proposal "is not a matter of political correctness; it is a corrective action to replace an outdated designation that is rooted in institutional prejudice."
Sergio Bichao is deputy digital editor at New Jersey 101.5. Send him news tips: Call 609-359-5348 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.