TRENTON, NJ -- The little-known title of "county freeholder" is going to be a thing of the past under an agreement between Governor Phil Murphy and leading state lawmakers. The title that many, including Senate President Steve Sweeney, consider "mired in the language of slavery" will be changed to "county commissioner" as is the term in most other states.
Derived from an Old English term used to refer to a person who owned an estate of land, free of debt, the title was adopted in New Jersey during the Colonial period when only those who owned real estate free of debt were eligible to participate in elections or hold public office.
Currently, only New Jersey still uses the title “freeholder” for county elected officials.
"It is important that we erase the terminology that reflects racist attitudes in order to eliminate the vestiges of discriminatory practices. Let's catch up with the rest of the world and call these officials who serve in public positions 'commissioners'," said Sweeney (D-Gloucester / Salem / Cumberland).
In Mercer County, there are seven members of the Board of Chosen Freeholders who serves as part-time county legislators elected at-large to three-year staggered terms.
The legislation enacting the change (Senate Bill 855) was passed unanimously on Thursday by the Senate Community and Urban Affairs Committee. It will not take effect until it is passed by the full State Legislature and signed by the governor.
Mercer County Freeholder Chairman Andrew Kootz told TAPinto Hamilton/Robbinsville that he was "not given advance warning" of the agreement between Governor Murphy, Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex) to make the change but says "it seems it's going to change soon.
"No one has ever called me to question our title of freeholder," said Koontz. "Many people have asked 'What is a freeholder?' I don't think that will change with the tittle commissioner. I don't think that people will notice if the title goes away."
Koontz said that he considers the change to be "an unfunded state mandate" but does not have an estimate yet for the potential cost to the County.
There is currently no timeframe from the Legislature for when the change from Freeholder to Commissioner would take place. Koontz believes the change could come as early as the fall.
Freeholder John Cimino, who is up for re-election this year, said that he anticipates running on the November General Election ballot as a freeholder but could take the oath of office in January as a commissioner. Cimino is currently running unopposed in his re-election bid.
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