TRENTON, NJ – The state Assembly on Thursday joined the state Senate by voting to eliminate the title of Freeholder and replace it with County Commissioner.
Gov. Phil Murphy is expected to sign the bi-partisan bill into law.
Until then, New Jersey remains the only state in the country to still use the colonial-era public office title of ‘freeholder’. which pre-dates the American Revolution. The title was used at a time when only white male owners of debt-free land could hold office.
The full Assembly voted 61-12-4 to approve the legislation; previously, the Senate had approved the bill 31-6.
The bill is sponsored in-part by Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker (D-Somerset, Middlesex, Mercer, Hunterdon).
“It is beyond time we change the title of ‘Freeholder’,” said Zwicker. “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historically intended to keep county-level office restricted to white, male, debt-free property owners it is not only outdated and archaic, but it is offensive to people of color and women.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," he added. "Removing from New Jersey’s political titles this exclusionary term, 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 bill, the title of “chosen freeholder” and “boards of chosen freeholders” would 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 measure provides where “freeholder” is referenced in statute it is to be understood as “county commissioner.”
Counties would 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 would not be required within the bill’s timeframe if doing so requires the use of county funds. These changes would, however, need to occur during the ordinary course of business.