NEW JERSEY — Removing “freeholder” from New Jersey’s 21 county legislative boards will mean the country’s full eradication of the title — which has been called confusing, insensitive and racist.
The inspiration for the change came from Union County Freeholder Angela Garretson, who broached the subject with Gov. Phil Murphy and State Senate President Stephen Sweeney during an event at the Community Food Bank of New Jersey in Hillside on Thursday.
Garretson, who among others has lobbied for the change in year’s past, also reportedly made the suggestion to Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin recently.
"No reasonable justification exists for continuing the title of Freeholder. Arguments such as the cost for stationary, public signs, and other associated expenses are as hollow as the opposition’s contention that the new term 'County Commissioner' is somehow confusing," Garretson said in a statement to TAPinto. "The exclusive definition and sordid legacy of the term Freeholder so powerfully overwhelms the claims of those who want to retain the past. Many county elected officials are proud to share our voices and stand together with our state leaders, against this outdated and outmoded term that does not embrace our state’s diversity."
During his coronavirus press briefing Friday, Murphy said, "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."
A proposed bill would alter the title from Board of Chosen Freeholders to the Chosen Board of County Commissioners. That it’s gained backing from three top Democratic lawmakers likely guarantees it will pass when considered next Thursday by a Senate committee.
When asked by a reporter whether other similar changes were forthcoming in the aftermath of social justice protests happening nationwide following 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.”
The centuries-old "freeholder” derives 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 debt-free 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 twelve 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.
“As our nation tears down symbols of injustice, we must also tear down words we use in New Jersey that were born from racism,” Murphy, Sweeney, and Coughlin said in a joint statement.