Monmouth County Freeholder Director Arnone Calls Announcement ‘Mind-Blowing’ in Light of Current Coronavirus Pandemic

TRENTON, NJ — Gov. Phil Murphy and top lawmakers are supporting efforts to remove the word “freeholder” from New Jersey's 21 county legislative boards — a centuries-old term that has been considered outdated, confusing and racist.

“It is high time this name went into the dustbin of history and I'm very happy we're going to do it, I hope sooner than later,” Murphy said during his July 10 coronavirus press briefing.

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“As our nation tears down symbols of injustice, we must also tear down words we use in New Jersey that were born from racism. It’s past time for New Jersey to phase out the term ‘freeholder’  — a term coined when only white male landowners could hold public office,” Murphy, Senate President Steve Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, all Democrats, said in a prepared statement.

However, the proposed bill, which is expected to be considered by a Senate committee next week, has come under fire by Monmouth County Freeholder Director Thomas Arnone, who called the announcement — made in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic — "mind-blowing."

“This is not the time for grandstanding and changing the title of elected officials is not going to help anyone,” Arnone, a Republican, said in a statement. “Not only will it not help, but changing the title right now is actually going to cost our taxpayers money, when so many are already struggling. We have businesses that cannot open, hundreds of businesses who are closing permanently, and more than 1.3 million people on unemployment, not to mention the thousands of residents who are being furloughed."

While Murphy said during his press briefing that the name change “doesn’t cost us anything,” Arnone countered that thousands of taxpayer dollars will need to be spent to update and change every sign, structure or material that bears the title.

“This is something that is going to take an incredible amount of time, effort and money to accomplish,” he said.  "There are countless issues that the state should be focusing on right now, including the complete mess we have had with the Motor Vehicle Commission’s reopening and getting our residents back to work.”

Under the proposed bill, each county’s Board of Chosen Freeholders would be renamed the Chosen Board of County Commissioners. The measure would require passage by the House and Senate before the governor could sign it into law.

The inspiration for the name change came from Union County Freeholder Angela Garretson, who broached the subject with Murphy and Sweeney during an event this week at the Community Food Bank of New Jersey in Hillside. Garretson, who among others has lobbied for the change in years past, also reportedly made the suggestion to Coughlin recently.

Dating back to the 18th Century, the term "freeholder” is derived from an old English term and harkens back to prior to the American Revolution, translating to the people who qualified to take on public office: white male owners of debtfree land.

According to New Jersey's first constitution, adopted on July 2, 1776, two days before the Declaration of Independence, a county representative must be worth, “fifty pounds proclamation money, clear estate in the same and have resided in the county in which they claim a vote for 12 months immediately preceding the election."

At the time, African-American slaves and women were not able to own property, and thus were prevented from holding public office.

When asked by a reporter at the July 11 briefing whether other similar changes were under consideration in the aftermath of social justice protests prompted by the police killing of George Floyd, the governor said, “I’ve got nothing else on the list right now … but we're constantly thinking that through, and we're taking advice from folks.”

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