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.
“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 Friday during his coronavirus press briefing.
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.
Monmouth County Freeholder Director Thomas A. Arnone criticized the decision, releasing a statement.
"The announcement that the State has decided to change the title of county freeholders, in the middle of a pandemic, is mind blowing. This is not the time for grand standing and changing the title of elected officials is not going to help anyone.
"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.
"To change the title of a freeholder, 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.
"There are countless issues that the State should be focusing on right now, including the complete mess we have had with the Motor Vehicle Commissions reopening and getting our residents back to work.
"Monmouth County has remained focused on the important things—helping small businesses and residents who are out of work or in need of social services and mental health services.
"The County is partnering with the Grunin Foundation to provide testing services to residents in more densely populated urban areas, committing up to $250,000 of CARES Act funding.
"They say actions speak louder than words and the actions of the Monmouth County Board of Chosen Freeholders have been and will continue to be done in the best interest of our residents—no matter what we are called."
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