New Jersey will no longer be the only state in the country to still use the colonial-era public office title of ‘freeholder’. Dating back to before the American Revolution, the title was used at a time when only white male owners of debt-free land could hold office. Today, it is a term often derided because of its inability to capture the actual duties of elected county officials.
To remove the outdated and confusing label, Governor Phil Murphy signed into law Friday a bill (A-3594) to change ‘Freeholder’ to ‘County Commissioner’. The bipartisan bill was sponsored in-part by Assembly Democrats Andrew Zwicker, Verlina Reynolds-Jackson and Angela McKnight.
“It is beyond time we change the title of ‘Freeholder’,” said Zwicker (D-Hunterdon, Mercer, Middlesex and Somerset). “As a term dating back to before the Revolutionary War, whose meaning was historically intended to keep county-level office restricted to white, male, debt-free property owners, it is not only outdated and archaic, but it is offensive to people of color and women. Our racist and sexist laws and conditions historically kept people from voting, owning land, and much more. Removing this exclusionary term from New Jersey’s political titles, while only a small and symbolic part of the work that lies ahead of us to break down the walls of systemic racism and sexism, is a step in the right direction.”
Under the law, the title of “chosen freeholder” and “boards of chosen freeholders” will be renamed to “county commissioner” and “boards of county commissioners” respectively.
Defined in the context of county government as “a member of the board which manages, controls, and governs the property, finances, and affairs of the county, and in which the executive and legislative powers of the county are vested,” the law provides where “freeholder” is referenced in statute it is to be understood as “county commissioner.”
“Removing vestiges of racism and sexism found in names or titles that have no place in our society today is an important step among many needed to bring an end to systemic bias,” said Reynolds-Jackson (D-Hunterdon, Mercer). “‘Freeholder’ was never an effective title for the county public office holder. For persons of color, it was more of a reminder of the sordid and oppressive ideals of its colonial-era origins. It’s time to end the confusing and hurtful conversation surrounding the term ‘freeholder’ and rename the position.”
“New Jersey is the only state in America that still used the outdated and offensive title ‘freeholder’ for its elected county officials,” said McKnight (D-Hudson). “The title dates back to pre-Revolutionary War in an era when county-level office holders had to be debt-free property owners, which, at that time included only white men. It is long overdue that we change the title to ‘county commissioner’ and forever eliminate the archaic and hurtful term of ‘freeholder.’”
Counties will also be required to update their websites to reflect the title change as well as retire letterheads, stationery, and other writings bearing ‘freeholder’ once their stock is exhausted. The update or replacement of signs or other writings will not be required within the law’s timeframe if doing so requires the use of county funds. These changes will, however, need to occur during the ordinary course of business.
Assemblywoman Betty DeCroce (R-Essex, Morris, Passaic) is also a sponsor of this legislation that has now been signed into law.