TRENTON — What's a freeholder?

If you don't yet know, no need to learn.

Gov. Phil Murphy on Friday signed a law changing the title of the state's countywide elected officials from "chosen freeholder" to county commissioner starting Jan. 1.

The law, passed with bipartisan support, requires the state's 21 counties to update their documents and websites with the new title by the end of next year. In order to save money, signs in buildings or public property won't have to be changed until the signage requires replacing.

The law eliminates one of the peculiarities of the Garden State, which was the only place in the country to use the Colonial-era title for an elected official.

The change was first proposed years ago by a Republican lawmaker but received tepid attention until this year, as more institutions across the nation began to grapple with racist vestiges of history. The term "freeholder" once referred to white men with property, the only class of people who could participate in government.

“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 Friday in a written statement following the signing of the law.

Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver, the first black woman to hold that elected office in the state, and a former freeholder from Essex County, supported the change as "long overdue."

“History is constantly evolving, and our terminology needs to keep up with it to be more reflective of where we are as a society,” she said Friday.

State Sen. Joe Pennacchio, R-Morris, said he first proposed the title change nine years ago because he preferred more accurate terminology that would allow the public to better understand the responsibilities of the elected position.

The freeholder boards — soon to be called "boards of county commissioners" — range in membership from three, five, seven and nine officials elected at-large or by districts in each county. Each county is different, but the boards generally have legislative and some executive authority to oversee county-level services such as parks, public works and health.

Some Republican freeholders across the state opposed the change.

Rutgers University President Jonathan Holloway said the change was not about the officeholders but the significance of their title.

"The title freeholder has a legacy that grows out of denying people access and the right to have a voice," he said. "Our present day should simply not look like that.”

2020 Election: NJ changing the way you vote

Sergio Bichao is deputy digital editor at New Jersey 101.5. Send him news tips: Call 609-359-5348 or email

More From New Jersey 101.5 FM